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Archive for November, 2018

Three weeks ago, I shared a video about the economics of trade balances.

Here’s the next video in the Freedom Partner series, which looks at why trade (whether inside a nation or across borders) makes our lives better.

Simply stated, we would all be miserably poor if we couldn’t trade.

But when we can exchange with each other, we naturally begin to specialize in what we like and what we do best. Adam Smith referred to this as the “division of labour” and he noted that this enables much greater prosperity.

A related concept is comparative advantage, which is a way of illustrating how we become richer when trade enables us to focus on what we do best compared to others.

Alan Blinder summarized this concept in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

A snarky mathematician once challenged the great Paul Samuelson to name an economic proposition that is true but not obvious. Samuelson’s choice was comparative advantage, which shows, among other things, that there are mutual gains from trade even if one nation is better than another at producing everything. Here’s a homespun illustration. Suppose a surgeon is also a whiz at house painting—better than most professional painters. Should she therefore take time off from her medical practice to paint her own house? Certainly not. For while she may have a slight edge over most painters when it comes to painting walls, she has an enormous edge when it comes to performing surgery. Surgery is her comparative advantage, so she should specialize in it and let some others, who don’t know their way around an operating room, specialize in painting—their comparative advantage. That way, the whole economy becomes more efficient. The same principle applies to nations.

Some of Samuelson’s observations over a lengthy and influential career were not so great, but his analysis about comparative advantage was spot on.

This short clip from Matt Ridley also is a very good description of why we should trade and reap the benefits of comparative advantage.

Last but not least, here’s a video from FEE on why specialization gives us so many great things.

By the way, I cited a couple of studies in my video.

The one showing 2-percent to 5-percent faster growth was published by the International Monetary Fund last November. Here’s part of the abstract.

In the cross section of countries, there is a strong positive correlation between trade and income, and a negative relationship between trade and inequality. Does this reflect a causal relationship? We adopt the Frankel and Romer (1999) identification strategy, and exploit countries’ exogenous geographic characteristics to estimate the causal effect of trade on income and inequality. Our cross-country estimates for trade’s impact on real income are consistently positive and significant over time.

And here’s the best chart from the study.

It shows that pro-trade nations are both more rich (solid green line) and more equal (dashed green line).

The moral of the story is that protectionism generates undeserved riches for the friends of politicians while lowering the living standards of everyone else.

The other study is from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Here are the key findings.

We use four very different methods to estimate past gains. Each of these methods entails its own set of assumptions. Estimated annual gains are on the order of $1 trillion. The estimated gain in 2003 income is in the range of $2,800 to $5,000 additional income for the average person and between $7,100 and $12,900 for the average household. Future gains are harder to quantify, not surprisingly since the future is always difficult to predict. The estimates range from $450 billion to $1.3 trillion.

And my favorite visual from the study shows the negative impact of 1930s-style trade taxes.

At the risk of understatement, repeating the policies of Herbert Hoover would be a very bad idea.

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Washington is a place that gets infatuated with trendy ideas. A few years ago, everyone was talking about a “universal basic income” because of the strange assumption that millions of people will be unemployable in the future.

That idea was mostly embraced by folks on the left (though not Joe Biden), but there’s now a related idea on the right to provide “wage subsidies” so that unemployable (or difficult to employ) people can get work.

A leading proponent is Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, who wrote The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.

National Review published an excerpt from his book.

Work has enormous social value for the individuals who engage in it and for the formation and stability of their families, the opportunities of their children, and the vibrancy of their communities. Ideally, the labor market would settle in a place where productive, family-supporting work was available to all people in all places. But nothing in the theory of economics guarantees such an outcome… If we really want to “pay for jobs” — and we should — then we should do it directly. …a…“Federal Work Bonus,”…an additional $3 into your check for every hour worked? That would be a wage subsidy. …a wage subsidy aims to produce that effect in the labor market. Workers unwilling to sell their labor for less than $12 per hour may be worth only $9 per hour to an employer. No job will emerge in that scenario. With the insertion of a $3-per-hour wage subsidy, by contrast, the employer can pay the $9 per hour that the work is worth and the worker can receive the $12 per hour that he demanded. Thus will appear a job where none existed before. …The value of the subsidy would be set relative to a “target wage” of, say, $15 per hour and would close half the gap between the market wage and the target. A worker would initially receive a subsidy of $3 per hour in this case, equal to approximately $6,000 per year if he worked full-time.

The wage subsidy Cass advocates is similar to the “earned income tax credit,” which is basically a redistribution program that is administered through the tax code.

But Cass wants the EITC to be universally available rather than primarily targeted at households with children.

The federal earned income-tax credit (EITC) already operates something like a wage subsidy, offering low-income households large tax refunds that can exceed what they paid in taxes to begin with. But the EITC gets paid long after the income is earned — at tax time the following year — based on an opaque formula. It creates none of a wage subsidy’s immediate, transparent effect in the labor market. …The EITC also skews its benefits heavily toward households with children. A single person working full-time at minimum wage would get a credit of $41, less than 1 percent of what his colleague with kids can expect.

For what it’s worth, Cass acknowledges that employers might capture some of the benefits of a wage subsidy.

If the government offers a $3 subsidy atop a $9-per-hour job, the result will not necessarily be a $12-per-hour job. The employer might instead cut the market wage to $8, to which the government would add $3.50 — half the $7 gap to the target wage of $15 — leaving the worker with $11.50. …How workers and employers respond to the subsidy will vary based on labor-market conditions. What we do know from studies of the EITC and a similar program in the United Kingdom is that, in those instances, roughly 75 percent of the financial benefit accrued to workers.

Now let’s discuss the policy implications.

Cass openly admits that a wage subsidy is a form of redistribution, and – much to my dismay – he doesn’t object if at least some of that new spending is financed by higher taxes.

Subsidizing wages is a particularly well-tailored response to the challenges that globalization presents for American workers. First, the wage subsidy is the appropriate mechanism for redistributing gains from the economy’s “winners” to its “losers.” It comes closest to doing this directly, by taking tax revenue drawn from higher earners and inserting it directly into the paychecks of lower earners. …it is redistribution. And yes, high-income taxpayers will finance it. …The roughly $200 billion price tag for a wage subsidy might require some new tax revenue, but its funding could come largely from the existing safety net, which already dedicates more than $1 trillion annually to low-income households — including many with workers.

The following excerpt also rubbed me the wrong way since he seems to be saying that it would be better if Washington had expanded redistribution instead of lowering the corporate tax rate.

…in debates over the 2017 tax-reform package, which ultimately increased the ten-year federal deficit by $1.5 trillion for the sake of reducing the corporate tax rate, while failing to deliver even the small EITC increase for childless workers that Ryan had once championed. Indeed, while the Khanna proposal in its 2017 form is not a serious one, even it could have been implemented more cheaply than the tax reform that ultimately passed. The deficit spending would have been equally costly, but at least the labor market and its low-wage workers would have been the chief beneficiaries. …the Republican party’s relative disinterest in the labor market is made apparent by its preference for a tax cut over a wage subsidy.

This is very troubling. In the long run, faster growth is much better for low-income workers.

I’m not the only skeptic of this plan.

Writing for the Week, AEI’s Jame Pethokoukis argues that Cass bases his idea on a misreading of the economy.

One of his innovative analytical insights is that economic growth from globalization is bad for workers. …This is a terrible reading of history… America would be worse off today if it had somehow kept the closed “golden age” economy of the 1950s and 1960s. Its lack of openness greatly harmed American workers… Too much of American industry became complacent, unproductive… Likewise, would America have a more thriving economy today without Silicon Valley? …Cass’ reading of the data isn’t much better as he adopts the stance of many leftists that most Americans are no better off than decades ago. Yet a recent Congressional Budget Office study shows a nearly 50 percent increase in middle-class incomes since 1970, with incomes for the bottom fifth up some 80 percent.

And Michael Strain, also with the American Enterprise Institute, was similarly critical in a column for Bloomberg.

Economic growth is under attack. Or, more specifically, the idea that public policy should place a large amount of emphasis on the economy’s rate of growth is under assault… Traditionally, conservatives have placed a premium on growth as the best way to advance the fortunes of all Americans. But in recent years, some on the right have [been] playing down the importance of growth to the well-being of many working-class Americans. The latest argument for that position comes from Oren Cass… Cass argues that the results from decades of policies designed to encourage GDP growth are “embarrassing” and have “steered the nation off course.” …conservatives have been right in their traditional focus on growth. Let’s recall why. …the hot U.S. economy is the best jobs program available for lower-wage and vulnerable workers. …this strength is benefiting low-wage workers more than other groups. …Growth doesn’t just help low-income and working-class households in the short term. Over longer periods, seemingly small changes in the growth rate have large consequences. In the past four decades, for example, real GDP per person has increased from about $28,000 to over $55,000, growing at about 1.7 percent per year. If growth instead had been 1 percent, average GDP per head would be about three-quarters what it is today.

Needless to say, I strongly agree with Strain’s final point about the importance of faster growth.

Though I confess to being at a disadvantage when judging these anti-Cass columns since I haven’t read the book.

However, to the degree that Cass truly has given up on growth (i.e., accepting some form of the “secular stagnation” hypothesis), then I side with Pethokoukis and Strain.

But that’s not my main concern. Here are the four reasons that motivate my objection to wage subsidies.

  1. Redistribution should not be a responsibility of the federal government. Indeed, I want all redistribution devolved to state and local governments (or to the private sector).
  2. Cass says the program will cost $200 billion. Like with most government programs, I assume the actual fiscal burden will wind up being much higher. Especially after the left starts a bidding war.
  3. Existing wages subsidies are riddled with fraud because the government effectively gives people lots of money simply for filing a tax return, yet rarely bothers to confirm they actually earned the income.
  4. Wage subsidies actually turn into wage penalties (i.e., punitive implicit marginal tax rates) when income rises above the target level and the handouts are withdrawn.

The bottom line is that Cass is right that it’s better to subsidize work rather than idleness.

However, Americans already are too dependent on Uncle Sam. It would be even better if we simply achieved more growth by adopting the tried-and-tested recipe for prosperity.

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The central argument against punitive taxation is that it leads to less economic activity.

Here’s a visual from an excellent video tutorial by Professor Alex Tabarrok. It shows that government grabs a share of private output when a tax is imposed, thus reducing the benefits to buyers (“consumer surplus”) and sellers (“producer surplus).

But it also shows that some economic activity never takes place (“deadweight loss”).

When discussing the economics of taxation, I always try to remind people that deadweight loss also represents foregone taxable activity, which is why the Laffer Curve is a very real thing (as even Paul Krugman admits).

To see these principles at work in the real world, let’s look at a report from the Washington Post. The story deals with cigarette taxation, but I’m not sharing this out of any sympathy for smokers. Instead, the goal is to understand and appreciate the broader point of how changes in tax policy can cause changes in behavior.

The sign on the window of a BP gas station in Southeast Washington advertises a pack of Newports for $10.75. Few customers were willing to pay that much. But several men in the gas station’s parking lot had better luck illegally hawking single cigarettes for 75 cents. The drop in legal sales and spike in black market “loosies” are the result of $2-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes that took effect last month… Anti-tobacco advocates hailed the higher legal age and the tax increase as ways to discourage smoking. But retailers say the city has instead encouraged the black market and sent customers outside the city.

Since I don’t want politicians to have more money, I’m glad smokers are engaging in tax avoidance.

And I feel sympathy for merchants who are hurt by the tax.

Shoukat Choudhry, the owner of the BP and four other gas stations in the city, says he does not see whom the higher taxes are helping. His customers can drive less than a mile to buy cheaper cigarettes in Maryland. He says the men in his parking lot are selling to teenagers. And the city is not getting as much tax revenue from his shops. Cigarette revenue at the BP store alone fell from $63,000 in September to $45,000 in October, when the tax increase took effect on the first of the month. …The amateur sellers say the higher cigarette tax has not been a bonanza for them. They upped their price a quarter for a single cigarette.

It’s also quite likely that the Laffer Curve will wreak havoc with the plans of the D.C. government.

Citywide figures for cigarette sales in October — as measured by tax revenue — will not be available until next month, city officials said. The District projected higher cigarette taxes would bring in $12 million over the next four years. Proceeds from the tax revenue are funding maternal and early childhood care programs. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says the fear of declining tax revenue because of black market sales has not materialized elsewhere.

Actually, there is plenty of evidence – both in America and elsewhere – that higher cigarette taxes backfire.

I would be shocked if D.C. doesn’t create new evidence since avoidance is so easy.

…critics of the tax increase say the District is unique because of how easy it is to travel to neighboring Virginia, which has a 30-cent tax, and Maryland, with a $2 tax. “What person in their right mind is going to pay $9 or $10 for a pack of cigarettes when they can go to Virginia?” said Kirk McCauley of the WMDA Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, a regional association for gas stations. …Ronald Jackson, who declined to buy a loose cigarette from the BP parking lot, says he saves money with a quick drive to Maryland to buy five cartons of Newport 100s, the legal limit. “After they increased the price, I just go over the border,” said Jackson, a 56-year-old Southeast D.C. resident. “They are much cheaper.”

An under-appreciated aspect of this tax is how it encourages the underground economy.

Though I’m happy to see (especially remembering what happened to Eric Garner) that D.C. police have no interest in hindering black market sales.

The D.C. Council originally set aside money from the cigarette tax increase for two police officers to crack down on illegal sales outside of stores. But that funding was removed amid concerns about excessive enforcement and that it would strain police relations with the community. On a Tuesday morning, Choudhry, the owner of the Southeast BP, stopped a police officer who was filling up his motorcycle at the BP station to point out a group of men selling cigarettes in his parking lot. The officer drove off without action. …On a good day, he can pull about $70 in profit. “Would you rather that we rob or steal,” said Mike, who said he has spent 15 years in jail. “Or do you want us out here selling things?”

Kudos to Mike. I’m glad he’s engaging in voluntary exchange rather than robbing and stealing. Though maybe he got in trouble with the law in the first place because of voluntary exchange (a all-too-common problem for people in Washington).

But now let’s zoom out and return to our discussion about economics and taxation.

An under-appreciated point to consider is that deadweight loss grows geometrically larger as tax rates go up. In other words, you don’t just double damage when you double tax rates. The consequences are far more severe.

Here are two charts that were created for a chapter I co-authored in a book about demographics and capital taxation. This first chart shows how a $1 tax leads to 25-cents of deadweight loss.

But if the tax doubles to $2, the deadweight loss doesn’t just double.

In this hypothetical example, it rises to $1 from 25-cents.

For any given tax on any particular economic activity, the amount of deadweight loss will depend on both supply and demand sensitivities. Some taxes impose high costs. Others impose low costs.

But in all cases, the deadweight loss increases disproportionately fast as the tax rate is increased. And that has big implications for whether there should high tax rates on personal income and corporate income, as well as whether there should be heavy death taxes and harsh tax rates on capital gains, interest, and dividends.

Some of my left-wing friends shrug their shoulders because they assume that rich people bear the burden. But remember that the reduction of “consumer surplus” is a measure of the loss to taxpayers. The deadweight loss is the foregone output to society.

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I just spent several days in London, where I met with journalists and experts at think tanks to find out what’s happening with Brexit.

By way of background, I think voters in the UK made the right decision for the simple reason that the Brussels-based European Union is a slowly sinking ship based on centralization, harmonization, and bureaucratization.

Membership already involves onerous regulations, and remaining a member of the EU would mean – sooner or later – sending ever-larger amounts of money to Brussels, where it then would be used to prop up Europe’s failing welfare states.

Getting out may involve some short-term pain, but it will avert far greater pain in the future.

At least that was the theory.

The reality is that the Tory-led government in London has made a mess of the negotiations. The newly announced deal isn’t a real Brexit.

Writing for the Telegraph, Dan Hannan, a British member of the European Parliament, sums up why the deal is a joke.

The deal, as one Italian newspaper puts it, represents “a resounding victory for the EU over Her Majesty’s subjects”. Yet there was nothing inevitable about this climbdown. On the contrary, there is something extraordinary, awe-inspiring even, about the slow-witted cowardice that led British negotiators to this point. …there is something extraordinary, awe-inspiring even, about the slow-witted cowardice that led British negotiators to this point. …the disastrous acceptance of the EU’s sequencing, which meant that all British leverage, including the exaggerated financial contributions, would be tossed away before the EU even began to discuss trade. …Can you blame Eurocrats for gloating? They sensed right at the start that they were dealing with a defeated and dispirited British team, whose only objective was to come back with something – anything – that could be described as a technical fulfilment of the referendum mandate. …we have ended up with the sort of deal that a defeated nation signs under duress. Britain will be subject to all the costs and obligations of EU membership with no vote, no voice and no veto.

But it gets worse.

Unbelievably, Britain has given the EU a veto over whether it can leave these arrangements: unlike EU membership itself, we have no right to walk away. Brussels will run our trade policy, our economy, even elements of our taxation for as long as it likes. As the usually Euro-fanatical Bloomberg asked incredulously last week, “Once Britain has acceded to this, what reason is there for the EU to agree to any other kind of deal?” …Leavers never did “own” this process. From the start, it has been controlled by those who wished it wasn’t happening, and who defined success as salvaging as much as they could of the old dispensation.

That final sentence is key. Theresa May was not a Brexit supporter. She failed to play some very strong cards and she basically worked to come up with a fake Brexit.

It remains to be seen, though, whether Parliament will approve this humiliating package. The House of Commons will vote in about two weeks and here’s how the UK-based Times describes the possible outcomes if the plan gets rejected.

Scenario 1: a second Commons vote The prime minister fails to secure Commons support for her withdrawal agreement… Her response is to…then bring…it back for a second vote…, as happened in America after Congress initially rejected its government’s bank rescue plan in 2008. …Scenario 2: change of prime minister May fails to get the deal through and either resigns, or faces a confidence vote among Tory MPs which, if she lost, would also see her step down. …The question for Tory MPs would then be whether to back the deal mainly negotiated under May… Scenario 3: a second referendum A defeat for May could result in a second referendum but only if she or her successor supported it. Tory policy is to oppose a second referendum. …Scenario 4: no-deal Brexit Tory Brexiteers in the cabinet and in the party would respond to a defeat for the May proposals by pushing for a no-deal Brexit, or a “managed” no-deal. …Scenario 5: the Norway option Though there is no parliamentary majority at present for the May deal, or for no deal, there could be for a closer relationship with the EU. This could take the form of…the EEA (European Economic Area), the so-called Norway option.

For what it’s worth, I fear “Scenario 1.” Members of the Conservative Party are like American Republicans. They occasionally spout the right rhetoric, but most of them are go-along-to-get-along hacks who happily will trade their votes for a back-room favor.

So I will be disappointed but not surprised if this deal is enacted. It’s even possible it will be approved on the first vote.

My preference is for “Scenario 4” leading to something akin to “Scenario 5.”

A report from the Adam Smith Institute offers a user-friendly description of this “Norway option.”

We cannot however be subordinate to a supranational institution… Nor should we make do with a semi-detached position inside the EU that also gives us semi-detached influence while still constraining the UK in the wider world. …we have to leave and reform the relationship in a characteristically British, outward-looking and open way. …The UK therefore requires something of a “soft” exit that maintains open trade but removes Britain from political union and from all that Britain has consistently struggled with – the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, the hollowing out and the outsourcing of democracy, the constraints on global trade deals.

And what does that look like?

…the most optimal way to exit would be to take up a position outside the EU but inside the European Economic Area (‘EEA’), which very likely means re-joining the European Free Trade Association (‘EFTA’). As Britain is already a contracting party to the EEA Agreement there would be no serious legal obstacle and it would mean no regulatory divergence or tariffs but it would mean retaining freedom of movement for EU/EEA nationals. …Such a deal would require agreement from the EU and EFTA but both would have strong reasons for allowing it…with the UK on board, EFTA would instantly become the fourth largest trade grouping in the world. …In short, EEA countries have a market-based relationship with the EU by having full single market access. They are free of the EU’s political union ambitions, and can class themselves as self-governing nation states. …The EEA position also opens up the ability to make trade agreements with third countries (something the UK cannot do now), would provide the UK with the freedom to set its own levels of VAT, and would allow the UK to step away from its joint liability of EU debts. That would be very attractive to Britain seeking a liberal soft exit.

Here’s a table showing the difference between EU membership and EEA membership.

Sounds like the outline of a acceptable deal, right?

Not so fast. The crowd in Brussels doesn’t want a good deal, even though it would be positive for the economic well-being of EU member nations. They have an ideological desire to turn the European Union into a technocratic superstate and they deeply resent the British for choosing self-government and democracy.

As such, the goal is to either maneuver the British government into a humiliating surrender (Theresa May was happy to oblige) or to force a hard Brexit, which would probably cause some short-term economic disruption.

But there was also resistance on the British end to this option since it ostensibly (but perhaps not necessarily) requires free movement of people. In other words, it might mean unchecked migration from EU/EEA nations, which arouses some nativist concerns.

Since I mentioned that a hard Brexit could lead to potential short-term economic disruption, this is a good opportunity to cite a very key section of Mark Littlewood’s recent column in the UK-based Times.

The Treasury has suggested that GDP could fall by as much as 7.7 per cent if Britain exited the EU without a deal. However, is there any reason to treat this projection any more seriously than the Treasury’s view that the Leave vote itself would lead to a recession and a reduction in GDP by between 3 per cent and 6 per cent? Almost all official predictions relating to the economic impact of the Brexit vote have been shown to be enormously over-pessimistic. Why should one assume that present forecasts are not beset by the same flaws?

Amen. The anti-Brexit crowd (the “remainers”) tried to win by arguing that a vote for Brexit would cause an economic collapse. That “Project Fear” was exposed as a joke (and was the target of some clever humor).

And the new version of Project Fear is similarly dishonest.

In a column for CapX, Julian Jessop of the Institute of Economic Affairs has additional details.

The public is being bombarded with warnings of potentially devastating impacts on the economy, their security and their welfare if the UK becomes a “third country” at 11pm on 29th March 2019, without the Withdrawal Agreement and framework for a future relationship anticipated in Article 50. …the daftest headline…is that a “no-deal” Brexit means that the UK would run out of food by August 2019 (the 7th, to be precise). This relies on the bizarre assumption that the UK would no longer be able to import food, not just from the EU but from anywhere in the world, and that we would continue to export food even as our own people starve. …it is often assumed that the EU would ignore its other legal obligations, including WTO rules. …the EU would not be able to treat the UK any less favourably than other WTO members.. Relying on the courts to fix things is also ra.rely a good idea. But it is absolutely right that the EU can’t go out of its way to make life difficult for the UK either.

Run out of food? Good grief, I thought the global-warming Cassandras were the world’s worst when it comes to exaggeration, but they’re amateurs compared to the anti-Brexit crowd.

Anyhow, this column is already too long, but here are links to four other CapX columns for interested parties.

I especially like the last column. One of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the Brexit debate is that the eurocrats in Brussels are scared that the UK will become more market-oriented once it has escaped the EU’s regulatory clutches.

And just as the EU has gone after Ireland and Switzerland for supposedly insufficient taxation, it also now is trying to hamstring the United Kingdom. All the more reason to escape and become the Singapore of Europe.

P.S. Donald Trump could help the United Kingdom by negotiating a quick and clean free-trade agreement. Sadly, that violates his protectionist instincts.

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During his final days in office, I gave a thumbs-down assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency. Simply stated, he increased the burden of government during his tenure, and that led to anemic economic numbers.

Now the economy seems to be doing a bit better, which is leading my friends on the left to make two impossible-to-reconcile claims.

  1. It is doing better, but Obama deserves credit.
  2. The economy isn’t doing better.

I’ve previously explained that the first argument doesn’t hold water. Today, let’s address the second argument.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former CEO Andy Puzder claims that Trump easily wins over Obama when you look at the numbers.

For eight years under President Obama, the growing burden of government suppressed the economic recovery that should have followed the recession of 2008-09. Mr. Obama nonetheless has claimed responsibility for today’s boom, asking Americans in September to “remember when this recovery started.” Yet it wasn’t until President Trump took office that the economy surged. …The result is a rising tide that is lifting boats across every class and region of the country. …Today unemployment rests at 3.7%, near a 50-year low. Since the government began reporting the data, unemployment has never been as low as it is today for African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and people with only a high-school education.

It’s certainly good news that unemployment rates have dropped. But labor-force participation numbers still haven’t fully recovered, or even come close to fully recovering, so the data on jobs is not quite as impressive as it sounds.

That being said, Puzder has a compelling indictment of Obama’s performance.

During a typical recovery, the economy grows at a rate between 3% and 4%, and the Obama administration predicted such a surge in its 2010 midsession review. It never came. The “recovery” of those years often felt much like a recession.

Amen. This echoes my criticism of Obamanomics. He made the U.S. a bit more like Europe, so it’s no surprise that growth was weak.

Let’s now look at Puzder’s evidence that Trump has done a better job. He compares the end of the Obama economy with the beginning of the Trump economy.

GDP growth staggered along at 1.5% in Mr. Obama’s final six full quarters in office. …growth doubled to 3% during Mr. Trump’s first six full quarters. …the increase in job openings over Mr. Trump’s first 21 months has averaged an impressive 75,000 a month. Over Mr. Obama’s last 21 months in office, the number of job openings increased an average of 900 a month. …During Mr. Obama’s last 21 months, the number of employed Americans increased an average of 157,000 a month. Under Mr. Trump, the increase has accelerated to 214,000 a month, a 36% improvement. …In Mr. Obama’s final 21 months, weekly earnings rose an average of $1.31 a month. Under Mr. Trump, weekly earnings have increased an average of $1.84 cents a month: a 40% improvement that’s come mostly since tax reform took effect in January. Over that period, weekly earnings have grown an average of $2.31 a month, a 76% increase over Mr. Obama’s last 21 months. …The unemployment rate declined 13% during Mr. Obama’s last 21 months, but from there it has dropped another 23% during Mr. Trump’s tenure.

All of this data is compelling, but I caution my GOP/Trump friends about relying on short-run economic data to make their case.

For instance, what if the economy is in a false boom caused by easy money? If that leads to a recession, will they want Trump to take the blame?

Or let’s consider a more tangible example. Trump and his supporters used to make a big deal out of rising stock prices, but that argument no longer appears to be very persuasive.

Let’s close with two charts that take different sides. The first one is from MSNBC, which makes a persuasive case that reductions in unemployment under Trump are simply a continuation of the trend.

On the other hand, this second chart, which comes from the White House, shows that economic outcomes are better than what the Obama Administration predicted.

This also is compelling data, and I’ve explained that even small improvements in economic performance are very desirable.

Though it remains to be seen whether this additional growth is either real or sustainable.

The bottom line is that there’s no reason to expect big economic improvements under Trump, at least in the long run. His good policies on taxes and regulation are offset by bad policies on spending and trade.

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I periodically mock the New York Times when editors, reporters, and columnists engage in sloppy and biased analysis.

But all these instances of intentional and unintentional bias are trivial compared to our next example.

The New York Times has gone above and beyond conventional media bias with a video entitled, “How Capitalism Ruined China’s Health Care System.”

Here’s the part that caused my jaw to drop.

After the sad opening story about the guy with the sick mother, there’s a section from 1:33-2:27 that makes two observations that basically show the premise of the video is totally wrong.

  • First, it points out (from 1:33-1:42) that there is a universal, government-run health system that ostensibly covers the guy’s mother, so her unfortunate status is yet another example that coverage in a government-run healthcare system is not the same as treatment.
  • Second, it points out (from 2:05-2:27) that life expectancy soared once the communist party relaxed its grip on the economy and allowed some liberalization, which would seem to be powerful evidence that capitalism leads to better health outcomes.

These are astounding mistakes.

But it gets worse. Sarah Lilly, who lives in China, debunked the rest of the video in a column for FEE.

The New York Times…attempts to blame capitalism for the many problems in China’s health care system. …As a resident of China and a recipient of outstanding private health care here, I was confused as to why the Times would show us the horrors of a capitalist system without actually visiting a private health care facility. …All of the horrors depicted in the high-quality video—the long lines, the scalping, and the hospital fights—occurred at government-run health care facilities. …At the very least, failing to feature a single private medical facility while blaming capitalism for the dysfunction of China’s public health system is intellectually dishonest.

She points out that the big-picture analysis in the video is wrong.

In the video, the Times praises Chairman Mao’s introduction of “free” health care and claims that when capitalism was introduced into the country, the state retreated and care was no longer free. Neither statement is true. First, health care was never free; it was paid for by tax revenues. Second, the state never retreated; rather, its regulatory apparatus became vaster and even more invasive. Out of sheer necessity, China allowed for the creation of private hospitals to ease the burden of the country’s heavily bureaucratic and deteriorating health care system.

And she also explains that the details of the video are wrong.

The Times video depicts the ungodly long line most Chinese face to see a physician. …It’s an appalling scene. …There’s just one problem. The Shanghai Cancer Center is a public hospital, not a private one. The long lines, scalpers, bribes, and physical fights with hospital staff—all of these exclusively happen in the public, communist, government-run hospitals. …In an egregious bit of sleight-of-hand, the Grey Lady asserts that capitalism is ruining Chinese health care while presenting us with a hospital where capitalism is not practiced.

To be fair, we get the same type of mistake when journalists look at the flaws in the American health system. They blame capitalism when the problems of ever-higher prices and uneven coverage are the consequences of government intervention.

P.S. My columns about sloppy bias at the New York Times don’t include Paul Krugman’s writings. Debunking those mistakes requires several different collections.

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My opinions on crime are very straightforward.

This set of principles explains my views on a wide range of issues, such as the War on Drugs, asset forfeiture, money laundering, search and seizure, and the death penalty.

But I sometimes come across an incident that challenges these principles.

Let’s look at a horrible story from Michigan about girls being genitally mutilated.

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala was arrested in April 2017 and accused of leading a criminal conspiracy that involved multiple doctors and resulted in the mutilation of nine girls over the course of twelve years. The practice, which is universally recognized as a gross violation of human rights, is traditional among the Dawoodi Bohra, the Muslim sect to which Nagarwala and his co-conspirators belong.

My visceral instinct is for some tit-for-tat justice. The so-called doctors should receive equivalent treatment, without the benefit of anesthesia.

Since that’s not an option, a very lengthy prison sentence could be the next-best alternative.

But something very unusual happened. The barbaric doctors had been charged by the federal government based on a federal law against genital mutilation, and a judge decided that the statute exceeded the proper powers of the federal government.

A federal judge dismissed charges Tuesday against several Michigan doctors accused of mutilating the genitals of numerous underage girls, ruling that the federal prohibition against the practice is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman argued that the 22-year-old federal law prohibiting female genital mutilation (FGM), which went unused until last year, constitutes federal overreach. …the judge’s ruling entirely clears four defendants in the case, including three mothers who allegedly handed their underage daughters over to Nagarwala to be mutilated.

This is a quandary.

I want the “doctors” to be thrown under the jail, yet part of me is very happy that a federal judge actually acknowledges that the Constitution imposes some limits on federal power.

Too bad Judge Friedman wasn’t sitting in for Justice John Roberts when the Obamacare case was (wrongly) decided.

Anyhow, here’s what has since happened.

In response to the case, Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed new laws prohibiting the practice of FGM, but as those laws applied only to future violations, the defendants in this case were charged under the old federal statute. Twenty-three other states, however, do not have laws banning the practice, leading critics of the judge’s ruling to suggest that parents intent on mutilating their daughters for religious purposes will simply travel to states where they can do so legally.

I have a couple of concluding thoughts.

First, I imagine that all 50 states – even crazy California – will pass laws against this barbaric ritual. So there’s no reason to relax my strong support for federalism.

Second, I hope Michigan authorities figure out how to charge the so-called doctors under existing state laws against assault, kidnapping, and anything else that might work.

In conclusion, I’m not under the illusion that any system will deliver perfect justice. But I do think we would get the best-possible outcomes if we adhered to constitutional principles and restricted the size and scope of the federal government.

P.S. Let’s not forget that jury nullification also should exist as an additional bulwark against bad laws and abusive officials.

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While I have no objection to applauding Donald Trump’s good policies such as tax reform and deregulation, I also don’t hesitate to criticize his bad policies.

His big missteps are protectionism and fiscal profligacy, but he also does small things that are misguided.

I’ve already written about his energy socialism and his increased handouts to the World Bank.

Today, we’re going to analyze his proposal for price controls on certain prescription drugs.

For some background on the topic, we’ll start with a very sound editorial from the Wall Street Journal. Here are the key passages.

…the U.S. shouldn’t put the world’s most innovative drug market at the mercy of what Greece is willing to pay for a cancer treatment. …a potential rule…would tether what Medicare Part B pays for certain drugs to a price index of what other developed countries pay. The goal is to bring prices down to 126% of what other countries pay, versus 180% today. …The reason European countries pay less for drugs is because they run single-payer health systems and dictate the prices they’re willing to pay. …Other countries have the luxury of extortion because the U.S. produces more drugs than the rest of the world combined. Mr. Trump mentioned these realities in his speech but blew past them to suggest importing the same bad behavior.

If we import bad policies, we import bad outcomes.

Europe does pay more—in the form of reduced access. Of 74 cancer drugs launched between 2011 and 2018, 70 (95%) are available in the United States. Compare that with 74% in the U.K., 49% in Japan, and 8% in Greece. This should cure anyone of the delusion that these countries will simply start to pay more for drugs. They’re willing to deny treatments… Better quality care in the U.S. is why America outpaces 10 European countries on cancer survival rates… Any investor who wants to bankroll the cure for Alzheimer’s is already staring at a very small chance of success—and the Trump HHS proposal adds another a potential limit on return that will be restricted further if Democrats retake power and use it as a precedent.

Here’s the bottom line.

Mr. Trump is right that Europe, Australia and many others are freeloaders on U.S. innovation, and better intellectual property protections in trade deals might help. But that is no reason to repeat their price-control mistake and undermine the reasons the United States is the last, best hope for medical progress.

Sadly, there aren’t many politicians willing to say and do the right thing.

Which is why Congressman Bucshon of Indiana deserves praise. Here are some details from a report by the Hill.

Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) on Friday criticized a drug pricing proposal President Trump made last month, marking some of the first public resistance to the move from congressional Republicans. Bucshon told The Hill that Trump’s proposal to lower some drug prices in Medicare by tying them to cheaper prices in other countries is too far of a move toward “price controls.” …“I understand that we do want to get drug prices down but I think that any proposal that would lead to government price-fixing in that space is a pathway we don’t want to follow.” Trump’s move, announced in October, went farther in the direction of price controls on drugs than what Republicans typically support. Some Democrats praised his move… Bucshon helped lead opposition to a somewhat similar Medicare drug pricing proposal from former President Obama in 2016.

Amen.

A bad Obama policy of intervention doesn’t suddenly become a good policy simply because Trump has adopted it.

Here’s some of what I wrote about the issue in a column for FEE.

…prescription drug prices are typically higher in the US than many other nations. That’s both because bad domestic policies restrict the kind of competition that would keep prices in check and the fact that many foreign governments enact price controls while threatening to steal patents from companies that don’t cooperate. So, it’s especially troubling to see a proposed rule from the Trump administration that would index prescription drug reimbursements under Medicare Part B—which covers drugs exclusively handled by physicians and hospitals like vaccines and cancer medications—based on the prices paid in other countries, including those with nationalized health care systems. To borrow a legal metaphor, it’s fruit of the poisonous tree.

And what happens when we import bad policies?

At stake aren’t just high-minded free-market principles but the vitality of the most innovative pharmaceutical market in the world. US drug companies have only weathered the abuses of foreign governments because the domestic market is large enough that they can recoup the losses. That’s why the president is right to call it “very, very unfair” for other countries to keep their prices artificially low at the expense of American patients; but importing those losses by allowing foreign abuses to set US prices will mean no more market in which to offset losses to socialized systems and thus an inevitable decline in research and development of new medications.

What’s the bottom line? As I noted, we’ll get bad results.

From rent control to the gasoline lines of the 1970s, the connection between price controls and shortages has been well established.

In the case of pharmaceuticals, I fear the main result will be a decline in innovation. The drug companies make nice profits in drugs that already are developed and approved, so I doubt they’ll have much incentive to withhold production on existing drugs if price controls are imposed.

But those profits help to offset the very high cost of development and testing. Including for all the research and development that doesn’t produce marketable products.

So the real victims will be all of us since we won’t have access to the potentially life-saving and life-improving drugs that might be created in the future – assuming an absence of price controls.

The economics of price controls are clear. The consequences are always bad, whether we’re looking at price controls on labor, price controls on gasoline, or price controls on other products.

Which is why such policies generally are supported by the world’s most economically illiterate governments (or, in the case of Nixon, the most venal politicians). Oh, and don’t forget Puerto Rico.

We need Ludwig Erhard, but we got Donald Trump.

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Some departments of the federal government should be shut down because of federalism. High on that list would be the Department of Education and Department of Transportation.

Other departments should be shut down because there is simply no role for any government involvement at any level.

I usually cite the Department of Housing and Urban Development as an example, but the Department of Agriculture also should be terminated.

It’s a rat’s nest of special interest favors. I’ve previously written about inane intervention to enrich Big Dairy, Big Sugar, and Big Corn.

But I confess that I was unaware of Big Cranberry.

The Wall Street Journal opines about the nonsensical nature of cranberry intervention.

As you dip into the Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, here’s a tart story that may make you want to drain the bog. This fall the U.S. Agriculture Department gave cranberry growers its approval to dump a quarter of their 2018 crop. Tons of fruit and juice—in the ballpark of 100 million pounds—will be turned into compost, used as animal feed, donated or otherwise discarded. The goal is to prop up prices.

Needless to say, there’s nothing about propping up cranberry prices in Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution.

This is also a common-sense issue, as the WSJ explains.

The USDA rule caps growers’ production based on their historical output, with some exemptions. Small cranberry processors aren’t covered, and neither are those that don’t have inventory left over from last year. The trouble is that this reduces everyone’s incentive to downsize… Among the many economic perversities of agricultural policy, this is merely a vignette. Still, America is growing 100 million pounds of cranberries and then throwing them away to raise prices per government order. Wouldn’t it be better—and easier—to let the market work?

By the way, Trump’s protectionism is also part of the problem.

President Trump’s trade war hasn’t helped. About a third of production usually goes overseas. But in June the European Union put a 25% tariff on U.S. cranberry-juice concentrate in retaliation for U.S. steel tariffs. A month later, China bumped its tariff on dried cranberries to 40% from 15%. Mexico and Canada also added duties.

A typical Washington cluster-you-know-what.

Though I don’t recommend thinking about it too much, lest you get indigestion.

The solution is to copy New Zealand and get rid of all agriculture handouts.

P.S. If you like Thanksgiving-themed libertarian humor, the image at the bottom of this column augments the image to your right.

P.P.S. And if you like Thanksgiving-themed videos with libertarian messages, here’s one option and here are two others.

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I’m at the Capetown Airport, about to leave South Africa, so this is an opportune time to share some thoughts on what I learned in the past seven days.

1. Land Seizures – The number-one issue in the country is a plan by the government to impose Zimbabwe-style land confiscation. I already wrote about that issue, so I’ll cite today an editorial from the Wall Street Journal.

South Africa needs another enlightened leader like Nelson Mandela, but it keeps electing imitations of Robert Mugabe. President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed recently that his government plans to expropriate private property without compensation, following the examples of Zimbabwe and Venezuela. …Supporters of expropriation claim black South Africans own less than 2% of rural land, and less than 7% of urban land… But the government’s 2017 land audit used questionable data… The Institute of Race Relations estimates black South Africans control 30% to 50% of the country’s land. …Mandela insisted that land reform is best achieved through a “willing buyer, willing seller” principle, as it is in other democracies with a strong rule of law. …snatching private property is about as destructive a policy as there is. The ANC was founded as a revolutionary party, and the tragedy is that it won’t let the revolution end.

To be sure, whites generally got the land illegitimately in the first place (something settlers also did to the Indians in America), so it’s not as if they are the angels in this conflict.

I’m simply saying that copying Zimbabwe-style policies would be catastrophically destructive to South Africa’s economy. Rich landowners obviously will be hurt, but poor black will be the biggest victims when the already-shaky economy goes under.

It’s unclear at this stage how far the government will push this policy. But since the nation already has suffered the biggest year-over-year decline in the International Property Rights Index, any additional steps in the wrong direction would be most unfortunate.

By the way, the news of property rights isn’t all bad. Here’s a video showing how poor people are getting titles to their homes.

2. Mandela’s Legacy – I remarked on my Facebook page that Nelson Mandela should be viewed as a great leader. I was one of many people who thought South Africa would descend into civil war between the races. Mandela deserves an immense amount of credit (along with unsung heroes in the South African community of classical liberals, such as Leon Louw of the Free Market Foundation) for ensuring the nation enjoyed a peaceful transition.

Did Mandela have some misguided views? Of course. He was a socialist, at least nominally. And he joined the South African Communist Party at one point.

But so what? Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slaveowners, yet we recognize that they played key roles in the founding of America. Simply stated, people can do great things yet still be imperfect.

3. Race – Notwithstanding South Africa’s peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, the nation faces some major race-related challenges. Simply stated, blacks are relatively poor and whites are relatively rich. And that’s what leads some politicians to pursue bad policy, such as class-warfare taxation and the aforementioned land confiscation.

To make matters even more complicated, there is also a significant – and very wealthy – Indian minority. Indeed, they are the ones who have benefited most from the end of apartheid, which has aroused some racial resentment.

Last but not least, there is also a significant mixed-race community that is culturally separate from native blacks (they speak Afrikaans, for instance).

4. Dependency – I wrote about this problem in 2014 and my visit has led me to conclude that I understated the problem. Simply stated, South Africa is not at the stage of development where it can afford a welfare state. Western nations didn’t travel down that path until the 1930s, after they already reached a certain level of development and could afford to hamstring their economies.

5. Labor law – Similarly, South Africa also has European-style labor protection laws, which discourage job creation. Such policies reduce employment in developed nations, but they cripple employment in developing nations.

By the way, if you want a great understanding of South Africa’s economic challenges, you should buy South Africa Can Work by Frans Rautenbach.

6. Corruption – In addition to the anti-market policies described above, South Africa also has a pervasive problem with political sleaze. Simply stated, politicians have been using government as a means of looting the public.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the New York Times.

…city officials drove across the black township’s dirt roads in a pickup truck, summoning residents to the town hall. …the visiting political boss, Mosebenzi Joseph Zwane, sold them on his latest deal: a government-backed dairy farm… The dairy farm turned out to be a classic South African fraud, prosecutors say: Millions of dollars from state coffers, meant to uplift the poor, vanished in a web of bank accounts controlled by politically connected companies and individuals. …In the generation since apartheid ended in 1994, tens of billions of dollars in public funds — intended to develop the economy and improve the lives of black South Africans — have been siphoned off by leaders of the A.N.C. …Corruption has enriched A.N.C. leaders and their business allies… that is just a small measure of the corruption that has whittled away at virtually every institution in the country, including schools, public housing, the police, the power utility, South African Airways and state enterprises overseeing everything from rail service to the defense industry.

That last sentence is key, though the reporter never made the right connection. The reason there is so much corruption is precisely because the government has some degree of power over “every institution in the country.”

Shrink the size and scope of the state and much of that problem automatically disappears.

Here’s another excerpt, which is noteworthy since it overlooks the fact that the government created laws requiring black shareholders and directors. Needless to say, that system wound up enriching politically connected blacks rather than ordinary citizens.

A smattering of influential figures, like the current president, Mr. Ramaphosa, amassed extraordinary wealth. They were allowed to buy shares of white-owned companies on extremely generous terms and invited to sit on corporate boards. They acted as conduits between the governing party and the white-dominated business world. Some of the A.N.C. leaders who were left out of that bonanza quickly found a new road to wealth: lucrative government contracts. The public tap became a legitimate source of wealth for the well connected, but also a wellspring of corruption and political patronage, much as it had been for the white minority during apartheid.

7. Crime – The biggest quality-of-life problem in South Africa is crime. The homes of successful people are often mini-fortresses, with big spiked walls topped by electrified wires. Large aggressive dogs and private security patrols also are ubiquitous. Sadly, the government doesn’t do a good job of policing, yet it also makes it difficult to legally own firearms.

8. Education – To be blunt, government schools in South Africa generally are a disaster. Reminds me of the mess in India, except there isn’t a similar network of private schools to give parents better options.

Much of the problem is the result of schools being run for the benefit of unionized teachers (sound familiar?) rather than students. There is some movement in the Cape province to allow charter schools, so hopefully that reform effort will bear fruit.

9. Concluding thoughts – I’ll close with a couple of random non-policy observations. First, South Africa still has some quasi-independent tribal kingdoms. Not exactly the Swiss model of federalism, but it’s better than nothing. Second, it is possible to have multiple wives (I thought of Oscar Wilde’s famous saying when I heard that). Third, everybody should visit South Africa for the scenery and wildlife. I spent a day at Kruger National Park and it was breathtaking even though I barely scratched the surface (by the way, Frans also wrote a great book about the Park).

P.S. Here’s my comparison of Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Botswana is the obvious success story of the three.

P.P.S. The IMF predictably is pushing anti-growth policy on sub-Saharan Africa.

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I generally don’t write much about the distribution of income (most-recent example from 2017), largely because that feeds into the false notion that the economy is a fixed pie and that politicians should have the power to re-slice if they think incomes aren’t sufficiently equal.

I think growth is far more important, especially for poor people, which is what I said (using the amazing data from China) in a recent debate at Pomona College in California.

But some people don’t accept the growth argument.

Or, to be more exact, they may acknowledge that there is growth but they think the rich wind up with all the gains when the economy prospers.

So let’s review some of the evidence. We’ll start with Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post, who points out that living standards have jumped for people at all levels of income in America.

…the rich are getting richer. The rest of us — say politicians, pundits and scholars — are stagnating. The top 1 percent have grabbed most income gains, while average Americans are stuck in the mud. Well, it’s not so. …the Congressional Budget Office…recently found that most Americans had experienced clear-cut income gains since the early 1980s. This conclusion is exceptionally important, because the CBO study is arguably the most comprehensive tabulation of Americans’ incomes. Most studies of incomes have glaring omissions. …The CBO study covers all…areas. …If the bottom 99 percent experienced stagnation, their 2015 incomes would be close to those of 1979, the study’s first year. This is what most people apparently believe. The study found otherwise. The poorest fifth of Americans (a fifth is known as a “quintile”) enjoyed a roughly 80 percent post-tax income increase since 1979. The richest quintile — those just below the top 1 percent — had a similar gain of nearly 80 percent. The middle three quintiles achieved less, about a 50 percent rise in post-tax incomes.

And here’s the data from Samuelson’s column showing what’s happened in the 21st Century.

Incidentally, economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco explain that weaknesses in data mean that upward mobility in America is not being properly measured.

…one needs to keep in mind that measured productivity growth is designed to capture growth in market activities. Thus, it may not fully capture the growth in people’s economic welfare… Measuring real growth properly is useful for addressing a host of questions. For example, existing studies use measured inflation to calculate the real income of children relative to their parents. Chetty et al. (2017) find that 50% of children born in 1984 achieved higher incomes than their parents at age 30. Adjusting for missing growth would raise the real income of children about 17% relative to their parents, increasing the fraction of those who do better than their parents by a meaningful amount.

Moreover, Professor Russ Roberts points out that many analysts rely on snapshots at two periods of time when estimating changes in prosperity.

Adjusted for inflation, the US economy has more than doubled in real terms since 1975. How much of that growth has gone to the average person? …Most people believe that the middle class and the poor are stagnating, treading water, while the rich get all the goodies. …these depressing conclusions rely on studies and data that are incomplete or flawed. …the biggest problem with the pessimistic studies is that they rarely follow the same people to see how they do over time. Instead, they rely on a snapshot at two points in time. So for example, researchers look at the median income of the middle quintile in 1975 and compare that to the median income of the median quintile in 2014, say. …But the people in the snapshots are not the same people. These snapshots fail to correct for changes in the composition of workers and changes in household structure that distort the measurement of economic progress.

When you follow the same people over time, however, you get a much more optimistic assessment.

When you follow the same people over time, you get very different results about the impact of the economy on the poor, the middle, and the rich. Studies that use panel data — data that is generated from following the same people over time — consistently find that the largest gains over time accrue to the poorest workers and that the richest workers get very little of the gains. This is true in survey data. It is true in data gathered from tax returns. Here are some of the studies… This first study, from the Pew Charitable Trusts, conducted by Leonard Lopoo and Thomas DeLeire uses the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) and compares the family incomes of children to the income of their parents.⁴ Parents income is taken from a series of years in the 1960s. Children’s income is taken from a series of years in the early 2000s. As shown in Figure 1, 84% earned more than their parents, corrected for inflation. But 93% of the children in the poorest households, the bottom 20% surpassed their parents. …Gerald Auten, Geoffrey Gee, and Nicholas Turner of the Office of Tax Analysis in the Treasury Department used tax returns to see how rich and poor did between 1987 and 2007. They find the same encouraging pattern: poorer people had the largest percentage gains in income over time.

For more information, here’s some data from the Pew study.

Let’s also look at a column by Professor Mark Rank in the New York Times. It was written back in 2014, but his observations about people rising and falling show that there is considerable mobility in the United States.

To what extent do everyday Americans experience these levels of affluence, at least some of the time? In order to answer such questions, Thomas A. Hirschl of Cornell and I looked at 44 years of longitudinal data regarding individuals from ages 25 to 60… The results were striking. It turns out that 12 percent of the population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution. …the image of a static 1 and 99 percent is largely incorrect. …This is just as true at the bottom of the income distribution scale, where 54 percent of Americans will experience poverty or near poverty at least once between the ages of 25 and 60… Ultimately, this information casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income. It suggests that the United States is indeed a land of opportunity, that the American dream is still possible

Amen.

Last but not least, for those of you who really like digging into data, here’s a video from Russ Roberts about the different ways of measuring middle-class incomes.

I cited some Pew data above, so I’ll close by calling your attention to the video of Pew data in this 2015 column. The bottom line is that middle-class Americans are enjoying more prosperity over time.

But it’s also true that different government policies could lead to higher or lower levels of income.

Which is why I’m perplexed that my left-wing friends want policies that would make the United States more like Europe.

Unsurprisingly, I think we should focus instead on pro-market changes that will increase America’s advantage over Europe.

P.S. The healthcare exclusion has a negative impact on take-home pay for ordinary Americans.

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I wrote back in 2011 about a bizarre plan in California to regulate babysitting.

You may be thinking that’s no big deal because California is…wellCalifornia.

But other governments also want to control private child care decisions. The latest example is from the District of Columbia, which is going after children’s play groups.

Lenore Skenazy explains the craziness in a column for Reason.

For 45 years, parents have brought their two-year-olds to the Lutheran Church of the Reformation as part of a cooperative play school endeavor. It’s a chance to socialize with other haggard moms and (presumably some) dads dealing with the terrible twos, and it’s volunteer run. …The problem—which isn’t actually a problem, unless you define it as such—is that because the play group has some rules and requirements, including the fact that parents must submit emergency contact forms, as well as tell the group when their kid is sick, the play group is not a play group but a “child development facility.” And child development facilities are subject to regulation and licensing by the government. As Lips points out, this actually creates an incentive for parent-run play groups to be less safe, because if they don’t have rules about emergency contact info, and how to evacuate and such, they are considered officially “informal” and can go on their merry, possibly slipshod, way… Take a step back and you see a group of people—toddlers and parents—enjoying themselves. They’re meeting, playing, and perfectly content. But another group is trying to butt in and end the fun—and the convenience.

And what is that “annoying group”? It’s the bureaucrats who issued the play group a “statement of deficiencies.”

The Wall Street Journal also opined on the issue.

The District of Columbia is literally targeting preschool play dates, claiming that parents need city approval before they can baby-sit their friends’ toddlers. Since the 1970s, parents have organized play dates at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on East Capitol Street. They formed a nonprofit to pay for the rent, insurance, snacks and Play-Doh, and each family chips in about $200 a year to cover expenses. …The fun and games ended Sept. 7 when gumshoes from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education showed up. They claimed the Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School counts as a day care center and is operating unlawfully. If the bureaucrats get their way, the co-op would have to hire a director with a background in childhood education or development, apply and pay for a license, obtain permits and abide by all other day-care regulations.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that day-care regulations in DC are ridiculously expensive and misguided.

Anyhow, the WSJ also observes that the play school could evade red tape by being less-well organized. Heckuva set of incentives!

…the day-care police claim the Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School is “formal” because it has a website, draws participants from a hat to limit play-date sizes, and hosts scheduled get-togethers. In other words, the parents aren’t organized enough for the government’s satisfaction but are too organized to escape its harassment. …State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang is pushing for more government control over the play dates. She wants mandatory emergency drills, sign-out sheets, CPR and first-aid certification for parent volunteers, limits on the frequency and number of hours co-ops can meet, among other requirements. Nannying the nannies will make life tougher on parents—who have a greater interest than the D.C. government does in ensuring their kids are in good hands.

The final sentence of that excerpt is key.

Parents aren’t perfect, but they have a far greater stake in making right decisions than a bunch of busy-body bureaucrats looking to expand their power.

P.S. This is one of the reasons I support school choice (and also object to throwing more money into government schools). Parents are far more likely to do right for their kids than faraway self-interested bureaucrats.

P.P.S. The bureaucratic version of the keystone cops would include the play-group police in addition to the milk police and the bagpipe police.

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While folks on the left sometimes imply that libertarians are autistic dorks, we do have a sense of humor. Even about our own unusual traits.

But we also like to mock big government, and that’s why we have some new material for our collection of Libertarian humor.

We’ll start with this bit of satire. I don’t know if it accurately captures the preferences of feminists, but it definitely summarizes how we feel about government.

Speaking of “basic functions,” that presumably includes infrastructure.

However, I don’t want Washington to be in charge of such matters. Though that doesn’t mean I have great confidence that any government at any level will do a good job.

Which is the theme from these three images from Columbia University’s Xavier Sala-i-Martin.

We’ll start with some evidence of poor coordination by the bureaucrats in charge of street and the bureaucrats in charge of sidewalks.

I already knew governments had problems with lines on roadways, but this even surprises me.

And I’m not even sure how to describe this bit of road planning. Makes this sign seem like genius by comparison.

Last but not least, this item from Powerline is a perfect way to conclude today’s collection. Maybe John Stossel was right when he wrote that the private sector deserves a bigger role.

The bottom line if that you’ve asked a very silly question if the answer is more government.

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Years ago, I shared a joke about American leftists fleeing to Canada.

But since Canada actually has a lot of pro-free enterprise policies (completely decentralized education and school choice, welfare reform and reduction, privatized air traffic control, etc), it doesn’t make much sense for statists to head north.

Last year, I followed up with some humor asking why leftists don’t move to places where socialism actually exists, such as Venezuela.

Well, the satirists at Babylon Bee have big news.

The caravan of Central American migrants heading to the U.S. is going to cross paths with a southbound caravan.

A migrant caravan full of leftists desiring to enter the socialist paradise of Venezuela departed the United States Thursday and began marching toward through Mexico, stating they will demand asylum so they might experience the far better life that socialism offers. …”Everyone there has the same quantity of possessions and food,” said one marcher. “Everyone makes millions of dollars, and very few people work. It’s a real paradise.” The refugees have complex motivations, but the vast majority simply want to see everything socialism has to offer after suffering the amazing benefits of capitalism for too long. …At its current pace, the caravan is expected to arrive just in time for Venezuela to run out of food entirely.

That sounds like a good trade to me.

Venezuela gets a bunch of crazies who will revel in equal levels of poverty (with the exception of the ruling elite, of course), and America will get a bunch of folks who want to work hard for a better life (an outcome that will be more likely since there will be fewer statists offering them welfare and telling them not to assimilate.

Speaking of assimilation, I suspect the leftists will have a very hard time adjusting to life under socialism.

P.S. Sticking with satire, American refugees have also fled to Peru.

P.P.S. If leftists don’t want to leave, maybe they’d go with this proposed national divorce agreement?

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I’m a big fan of tax competition because politicians (i.e., stationary bandits) are far more likely to control their greed (i.e., keep tax burdens reasonable) if they know taxpayers have the ability to shift economic activity to lower-tax jurisdictions.

For all intents and purposes, tax competition helps offset the natural tendency (caused by “public choice“) of politicians to create “goldfish government” by over-taxing and over-spending.

In other words, tax competition forces politicians to adopt better policy even though would prefer to adopt worse policy.

I’ve shared many real-world examples of tax competition. Today, let’s augment that collection with a story from Indonesia.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto will slash corporate and personal income taxes if he comes to power, part of a plan to compete with low-tax neighbors like Singapore in luring more investment to Southeast Asia’s biggest economy. …While he didn’t disclose possible tax rates, he said the aim is to lower them “on par with Singapore.” Indonesia currently has a top personal income tax rate of 30 percent and a corporate tax rate of 25 percent. Singapore has a corporate tax rate of 17 percent and a top individual rate of 22 percent for residents. “Our nominal tax rate is too high,” Wibowo said in an interview in Jakarta on Wednesday. Tax reform is needed to attract more foreign business as well as to encourage compliance, he said.

I have no idea if this candidate is sincere. I have no idea if he has a chance to win.

But I like how he embraces lower tax rates to compete with low-tax competitors in the region, such as Singapore.

The story, from Bloomberg, does include a chart that cries out for some corrective analysis.

There are two things to understand.

First, there are vast differences between Singapore and Indonesia. Singapore is ranked #2 by Economic Freedom of the World while Indonesia is only #65. And the reasons for the vast gap is that Indonesia gets very low scores for rule of law, regulation, and trade.

Moreover, while their scores for fiscal policy are similar, Singapore’s good score is a conscious choice whereas Indonesia has a small public sector because the government is too corrupt and incompetent to collect much money.

But this brings us to the second point. Tax collections are low in part because people don’t comply.

Indonesia has one of the region’s lowest tax-to-GDP ratios of about 11 percent and a poor record of tax compliance.

But that’s a reason to lower tax rates.

The bottom line is that I hope Indonesia adopts pro-growth tax reform but there are much bigger problems to solve.

P.S. Since I’ve been comparing Indonesia to Singapore, look at how the OECD and Oxfam made fools of themselves when comparing Singapore to other nations.

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I periodically ask my left-leaning friends to identify a nation that became rich with statist policies.

They usually point to Sweden or Denmark, but I point out that Sweden and Denmark became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s, when government was very small.

At that point, they don’t really have any other response.

That’s because, as I pointed out in this clip from a recent debate at Pomona College in California, there is no example of a poor nation becoming rich with big-government policies (though we have tragic examples of rich nations becoming poor with statism).

So if statism isn’t the right approach to achieve prosperity, how can poor nations become rich nations.

I’ve offered my recipe for growth and prosperity, but let’s look at the wise words of Professor Deirdre McCloskey in the New York Times.

The Great Enrichment began in 17th-century Holland. By the 18th century, it had moved to England, Scotland and the American colonies, and now it has spread to much of the rest of the world. Economists and historians agree on its startling magnitude: By 2010, the average daily income in a wide range of countries, including Japan, the United States, Botswana and Brazil, had soared 1,000 to 3,000 percent over the levels of 1800. People moved from tents and mud huts to split-levels and city condominiums, from waterborne diseases to 80-year life spans, from ignorance to literacy. …50 years ago, four billion out of five billion people lived in…miserable conditions. In 1800, it was 95 percent of one billion.

Deirdre then explains that classical liberalism produced this economic miracle.

What…caused this Great Enrichment? Not exploitation of the poor, …but a mere idea, which the philosopher and economist Adam Smith called “the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.” In a word, it was liberalism, in the free-market European sense. Give masses of ordinary people equality before the law and equality of social dignity, and leave them alone, and it turns out that they become extraordinarily creative and energetic. …we eventually need capital and institutions to embody the ideas, such as a marble building with central heating and cooling to house the Supreme Court. But the intermediate and dependent causes like capital and institutions have not been the root cause. The root cause of enrichment was and is the liberal idea, spawning the university, the railway, the high-rise, the internet and, most important, our liberties.

In other words, the right ideas are the building blocks that enable the accumulation of capital and the development of institutions.

Deirdre’s analysis is critical. She reminds us that investment doesn’t merely depend on good tax policy and rule of law doesn’t magically materialize. You need a form of societal capital as the foundation.

Anyhow, to show how good ideas changed the world, this chart show how classical liberalism is the key that unlocked modern prosperity.

You may have already seen a chart that looks just like this. It was in a video Deirdre narrated. And Don Boudreaux shared a similar chart in one of his videos.

Circling back to the point I made at the start of this column, socialism (or any other form of statism) has never produced this type of economic miracle.

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During the 2016 presidential campaign, I was very critical of Donald Trump’s proposal to expand the entitlement state with a new program for paid parental leave, just as I was very critical of a similar proposal from Hillary Clinton.

Neither candidate offered much detail, but it was reckless and irresponsible for both of them to propose any sort of new tax-and-transfer scheme when the country already faces a long-run crisis because of entitlement programs.

And that looming entitlement crisis explains why I also criticized a paid-leave proposal developed by AEI and the Urban Institute.

But not all parental leave proposals involve a net increase in the fiscal burden of government. Senator Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ann Wagner have put forth a plan that would allow new parents to finance time off with newborns with money from Social Security, so long as they are willing to accept lower retirement benefits in the future.

The Wall Street Journal is skeptical of this kind of initiative.

Republicans should consider the consequences before signing up for a major expansion of the entitlement state. …Mr. Rubio…claims his benefit doesn’t expand government or create a new entitlement. But what is expanding government if not taking a benefit financed by private industry and administering it through a government program? Paid leave by definition entitles Americans to a de novo benefit… Mr. Rubio says leave will pay for itself by delaying retirement benefits… Does anyone believe those retirement benefits won’t be restored eventually, at least for the non-affluent? …The biggest illusion is that this proposal is a shrewd political move that will steal an issue from Democrats. In the real world they will see Mr. Rubio and raise. The National Partnership for Women & Families called the Rubio plan “reckless, irresponsible and ill-conceived” for making parents choose between kids and retirement. They want both. Once Social Security is open for family leave, Democrats will want to use it for college tuition, and why not a home downpayment?

Ramesh Ponnuru counters the WSJ, arguing in his Bloomberg column that the Rubio/Wagner plan merely creates budget-neutral flexibility.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Ann Wagner of Missouri…have introduced legislation to let parents finance leave by either delaying taking Social Security benefits when they retire or getting slightly reduced benefits. …The proposal doesn’t raise federal spending over the long run, but only moves benefits forward in time from a person’s retirement to her working years. …the proposal is better seen as a way of adding flexibility into an existing entitlement than of creating one. …Because Democrats will demand more generous leave policies, the Journal warns that the Rubio-Wagner proposal will backfire politically. But the bill is an attempt to satisfy a demand among voters for help with family leave. It’s not creating that demand. Republicans can choose whether to counter Democratic policies with nothing, or with an idea that gives families a new option at no net long-term cost to taxpayers. The political choice should be easy.

Ramesh makes several good points. There is a big difference between what Rubio and Wagner are proposing and the plans that involve new taxes and additional spending.

And he even cites the example of a provision in the Social Security system, involving early benefits for disabled widows, that hasn’t resulted in a net increase in the burden of government.

So what’s not to like about the plan?

Plenty. At least according to John Cogan of the Hoover Institution, who has a column warning that it is very unrealistic to hope that politicians won’t expand an entitlement program.

Mr. Rubio’s well-intentioned plan begins by promising a small, carefully targeted benefit and assuring us that it won’t add to the long-run public debt. But history demonstrates that is how costly entitlement programs begin. …New programs initially target benefits to a group of individuals deemed particularly worthy at the time. Eventually the excluded come forth to assert that they are no less worthy of aid and pressure lawmakers to relax eligibility rules. …The broadening of eligibility rules brings yet another group of claimants closer to the boundaries of eligibility, and the pressure to relax qualifying rules begins all over again. The process…repeats itself until the entitlement program reaches a point where its original noble goals are no longer recognizable. …Medicaid and food-stamp programs followed a similar path. These programs were originally limited to providing health and nutrition assistance, respectively, mainly to supplement welfare cash assistance. Both programs now extend aid to large segments of the population who are not on cash welfare and in some cases above the poverty line. Medicaid assists 25% of the nonelderly population. Food stamps pay a major part of the grocery bills for 14% of the nonelderly population. …For more than 200 years, no entitlement program has been immune from the expansionary pressures…and there is no earthly reason to think Mr. Rubio’s plan will prove the exception.

Here’s my two cents on the topic (the same points I made when addressing this issue earlier in the year).

  1. From a big-picture philosophical perspective, I don’t think the federal government should have any role in family life. Child care certainly is not one of the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution. Proponents of intervention routinely argue that the United States is the only advanced nation without such a program, but I view that as a feature, not a bug. We’re also the only advanced nation without a value-added tax. Does that mean we should join other countries and commit fiscal suicide with that onerous levy?
  2. Another objection is that there is a very significant risk that a small program eventually become will become much larger. …once the principle is established that Uncle Sam is playing a role, what will stop future politicians from expanding the short-run goodies and eliminating the long-run savings? It’s worth remembering that the original income tax in 1913 had a top rate of 7 percent and it only applied to 1/2 of 1 percent of the population. How long did that last?
  3. Finally, I still haven’t given up on the fantasy of replacing the bankrupt tax-and-transfer Social Security system with a system of personal retirement accounts. Funded systems based on real savings work very well in jurisdictions such as AustraliaChileSwitzerlandHong Kong, and the Netherlands, but achieving this reform in the United States will be a huge challenge. And I fear that battle will become even harder if we turn Social Security into a piggy bank for other social goals. For what it’s worth, this is also why I oppose plans to integrate the payroll tax with the income tax.

My goal today is not to savage Sen. Rubio and Rep. Wagner for their proposal. For all intents and purposes, they are proposing to do the wrong thing in the best possible way.

If it’s a choice between their plan and some as-yet-undeveloped Trump-Pelosi tax and transfer scheme, the nation obviously will be better off with the Rubio-Wagner approach.

But hopefully we won’t be forced to choose between unpalatable and awful.

P.S. This debate reminds me of the tax reform debate in 2016. Only instead of doing the wrong thing in the best possible way, Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had tax plans that did the right thing in the most risky way.

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The most disturbing outcome of the recent mid-term election isn’t that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be a Member of Congress. I actually look forward to that because of the humor value.

Instead, with the Democrats now controlling the House of Representatives, I’m more worried about Donald Trump getting tricked into a “budget summit” that inevitably would produce a deal with higher taxes and more spending. Just in case you think I’m being paranoid, here are some excerpts from a recent Politico report.

The dust has barely settled on the midterm elections, yet tax talk is already in the air thanks to President Donald Trump signaling openness to higher taxes, at least for some. …Trump said he’d be open to making an “adjustment” to recent corporate and upper-income tax cuts… Those off-the-cuff comments are sure to spark concerns among Republican leaders… Trump also suggested he could find common ground with Democrats on health care and infrastructure.

To be fair, Trump was only talking about higher taxes as an offset to a new middle-class tax package, but Democrats realize that getting Trump to acquiesce to a net tax hike would be of great political value.

And I fear they will be successful in any fiscal negotiations. Just look at how Trump got rolled on spending earlier this year (and that orgy of new spending took place when Democrats were in the minority).

I fear a deal in part because I object to higher taxes. But also because it’s quite likely that we’ll get the worst kind of tax hikes – i.e., class-warfare increases in tax rates or work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

The political dynamic of budget deals is rather straightforward. So long as the debate is whether to raise taxes or not, the anti-tax crowd has the advantage since most Americans don’t want to give more of their money to politicians.

But if both parties agree with the notion that taxes should increase, then most Americans will – for reasons of self defense – want higher taxes on the rich (with “rich” defined as “making more money than me”). And those are the tax increases that do the most damage.

Interestingly, even economists from the International Monetary Fund agree with me about the negative consequences of higher tax rates. Here’s the abstract of a recent study.

This paper examines the macroeconomic effects of tax changes during fiscal consolidations. We build a new narrative dataset of tax changes during fiscal consolidation years, containing detailed information on the expected revenue impact, motivation, and announcement and implementation dates of nearly 2,500 tax measures across 10 OECD countries. We analyze the macroeconomic impact of tax changes, distinguishing between tax rate and tax base changes, and further separating between changes in personal income, corporate income, and value added tax. Our results suggest that base broadening during fiscal consolidations leads to smaller output and employment declines compared to rate hikes, even when distinguishing between tax types.

Here’s a bit of the theory from the report.

Tax-based fiscal consolidations are generally associated with large output declines, but their composition can matter. In particular, policy advice often assumes that measures to broaden the tax base by reducing exemptions and deductions are less harmful to economic activity during austerity. …base broadening often tends to make taxation across sectors, firms, or activities more homogeneous, contrary to rate increases. This helps re-allocate resources to those projects with the highest pre-tax return, thereby improving economic efficiency.

By the way, “base broadening” is the term for when politicians collect more revenue by repealing or limiting deductions, exemptions, exclusions, credits, and other tax preferences (“tax reform” is the term for when politicians repeal or limit preferences and use the money to finance lower tax rates).

Anyhow, here are some of the findings from the IMF study on the overall impact of tax increases.

The chart on the right shows that higher taxes lead to less economic output, which certainly is consistent with academic research.

And the chart on the left shows the revenue impact declining over time, presumably because of the Laffer Curve (further confirming that tax hikes are bad even if they generate some revenue).

But the main purpose of the study is to review the impact of different types of tax increases. Here’s what the authors found.

Our key finding is that tax base changes during consolidations appear to have a smaller impact on output and employment than tax rate changes of a similar size. We find a statistically significant one-year cumulative tax rate multiplier of about 1.2, rising to about 1.6 after two years. By contrast, the cumulative tax base multiplier is only 0.3 after one year, and 0.4 after two years, and these estimates are not statistically significant.

And here’s the chart comparing the very harmful impact of higher rates (on the left) with the relatively benign effect of base changes (on the right).

For what it’s worth, the economic people in the Trump Administration almost certainly understand that there shouldn’t be any tax increases. Moreover, they almost certainly agree with the findings from the IMF report that class-warfare-style tax increases do the most damage.

Sadly, politicians generally ignore advice from economists. So I fear that Trump’s spending splurge has set the stage for tax hikes. And I fear that he will acquiesce to very damaging tax hikes.

All of which will lead to predictably bad results.

P.S. A columnist for the New York Times accidentally admitted that the only budget summit that actually led to a balanced budget was the 1997 that lowered taxes.

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As a fiscal policy wonk, I’ve come across depressing examples of counterproductive tax provisions (health benefits exclusion, ethanol credits) and spending programs (the entire HUD budget, OECD subsidies).

But the folks who work on regulatory policy may get exposed to the most inane government policies (Fannie-Freddie mandate, EEOC rulings).

For example, consider how the government is undermining public health by going after e-cigarettes.

Sally Satel of the American Enterprise Institute offers a good introduction to the issue.

Strikingly, it is members of the public health establishment that have fanned the pessimism surrounding the battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine without the carcinogenic tar. One leading culprit is the Centers for Disease Control which refuses to acknowledge the steep risk reduction for smokers who switch to non-combustible tobacco, overlooks evidence of immediate gains in respiratory health when e-cigarettes are used as an alternative to smoking, and dramatizes as yet unrealized harm to children. …at the heart of this skepticism in the US is the FDA, who has devised an onerous rule that “deems” e-cigarettes to be tobacco products and thus subject to the same regulatory regime as combustible cigarettes. The rule…places undue regulatory burden and cost on vaping manufacturers. …the agency’s mandate for manufacturers to submit data prior to product approval is deeply misguided. Although patterns of youth uptake, flavor preferences, and nicotine level preferences are important data, they do not trump the benefit to adult smokers’ health. …The regulatory politics of non-combustible nicotine products stand as one of the great paradoxes in public health. While our health agencies now strongly champion harm reduction for opiate misuse, they are making it more and more difficult to improve and save the lives of smokers.

The Orange County Register is not a big fan of what’s been happening.

There’s a strange anti-vaping hysteria hitting governments. …The itch to treat vaping like smoking afflicting so many public health activists and government officials may be well-intentioned, but it is also misguided and harmful to the very goal of reducing smoking which these campaigners claim to champion. …Vapor products offer a way to consume nicotine without inhaling the lethal smoke that causes cancer and kills smokers. It has long been known that it is the smoke from burning tobacco, not the nicotine, that kills smokers. …Flavors are a critical ingredient to the success of tobacco harm reduction. According to a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, of 4,618 vapers surveyed, more than 91 percent classified themselves as “former” smokers, with the majority saying flavor variety was “very important” to their efforts to quit smoking. The study also found the number of flavors a vaper used was independently associated with quitting smoking. Supporters of flavor bans argue these products appeal to children and will induce them to start smoking cigarettes. But the data fails to bear this out. A 2015 study from the Journal of Nicotine & Tobacco Research found nonsmoking teens’ interest in e-cigarettes was “very low” and didn’t change with the availability of flavors.

Looking at this debate motivated me to write an article on the story behind the story.

In an ideal world, the discussion and debate about how (or if) to tax e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn, and other tobacco harm-reduction products would be guided by science. …In the real world, however, politicians are guided by other factors. There are two things to understand… First, this is a battle over tax revenue. Politicians are concerned that they will lose tax revenue if a substantial number of smokers switch to options such as vaping. …Second, this is a quasi-ideological fight. Not about capitalism versus socialism, or big government versus small government. It’s basically a fight over paternalism, or a battle over goals. For all intents and purposes, the question is whether lawmakers should seek to simultaneously discourage both tobacco use and vaping because both carry some risk (and perhaps because both are considered vices for the lower classes)? Or should they welcome vaping since it leads to harm reduction as smokers shift to a dramatically safer way of consuming nicotine?

I used an analogy from the world of statistics.

…researchers presumably always recognize the dangers of certain types of mistakes, known as Type I errors (also known as a “false positive”) and Type II errors (also known as a “false negative”). …The advocates of high taxes on e-cigarettes and other non-combustible products are fixated on the possibility that vaping will entice some people into the market. Maybe vaping will even act as a gateway to smoking. So, they want high taxes on vaping, akin to high taxes on tobacco, even though the net result is that this leads many smokers to stick with cigarettes instead of making a switch to less harmful products. …At some point in the future, observers may joke that one side is willing to accept more smoking if one teenager forgoes vaping while the other side is willing to have lots of vapers if it means one less smoker.

On the issue of taxes, here’s a 2017 map from the Tax Foundation that shows state excise taxes on vaping.

There has been some pushback against the regulators.

The electronic cigarette industry and its free-market allies are seeing fresh opportunities to ease federal rules on e-cigarettes… More than a dozen conservative groups wrote to congressional leaders…, calling on them to add a pro-vaping provision to a spending measure… A rule issued…by the Obama administration “deems” e-cigarettes to be tobacco products and allows the FDA to retroactively examine all tobacco products on the market in February 2007. …industry advocates say the costly FDA approval process would force most e-cigarette companies to shut down. …The notion of “harm reduction” is the main argument pro-vaping forces use in their push to remove the requirement that tobacco companies retroactively prove their e-cigarettes are safe.

For what it’s worth, the FDA has kicked the can down the road, basically postponing its harsh new regulatory regime until 2022.

In the world of business, that’s just around the corner. Especially since investors and entrepreneurs have relatively long time horizons.

So let’s look at some evidence that hopefully will lead the bureaucrats at the FDA to make rational decisions.

The main argument, as noted in this column in the Wall Street Journal, is that vaping is the most effective way of reducing smoking.

Two major government surveys show that regular e-cigarette use by people who have never smoked is under 1%. Some 4.2% of high-school seniors report smoking conventional cigarettes daily, according to Monitoring the Future, and 9.7% reported smoking at least once in the previous month. These are “the high-risk youth” we need to worry about… Overheated worries about youth vaping are threatening to obscure the massive potential benefits to the nation’s 38 million cigarette smokers. Two million have already quit thanks to e-cigarettes. Vaping products are already the most widely used quit-smoking tool.

And smoking is the real danger to health, as Veronique de Rugy notes in a Reason article.

Tobacco kills 480,000 people a year in the United States. Yet when an innovative alternative that delivers nicotine and eliminates 95 percent of the harm of smoking is available, the wary Food and Drug Administration fails to embrace this revolutionary lifesaving technology. All in the name of the children, of course. Using e-cigarettes, known as vaping, has been around long enough for respected health authorities to conclude after many studies that it is eminently safer than smoking cigarettes. Britain’s Royal College of Physicians called any attempts by public officials to discourage smokers from switching to vaping “unjust, irrational and immoral.” …no one wants teens to vape, but we certainly don’t want them to smoke cigarettes and die an agonizing death later in life. As a parent, I tell my children that they shouldn’t do either. But the truth is that I know, as do they, that if they are going to do something as stupid as committing so much of their money to that sort of activity, vaping is the way to go. The bottom line is that government alarmists should back off. The first step is for the FDA to stick to its plan to postpone regulation until 2022 and create a clear pathway for the permanent approval of these products. It would allow the vaping companies time to establish their products as a safer alternative to cigarettes.

Here’s some scholarly research on the topic.

 US tobacco control policies to reduce cigarette use have been effective, but their impact has been relatively slow. This study considers a strategy of switching cigarette smokers to e-cigarette use (‘vaping’) in the USA to accelerate tobacco control progress. …Compared with the Status Quo, replacement of cigarette by e-cigarette use over a 10-year period yields 6.6 million fewer premature deaths with 86.7 million fewer life years lost in the Optimistic Scenario. Under the Pessimistic Scenario, 1.6 million premature deaths are averted with 20.8 million fewer life years lost. The largest gains are among younger cohorts, with a 0.5 gain in average life expectancy projected for the age 15 years cohort in 2016. …Our projections show that a strategy of replacing cigarette smoking with vaping would yield substantial life year gains, even under pessimistic assumptions regarding cessation, initiation and relative harm.

And the Wall Street Journal opines on the issue.

E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco. They contain nicotine, a chemical derived from tobacco and other plants. Plain English was never a deterrent, though, to regulators on an empire-expanding mission. The Food and Drug Administration this week rolled out new regulations on e-cigarettes based on a 2009 law giving the agency power over products that “contain tobacco.” …Plain English also does not authorize inclusion of e-cigarettes under the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the deal struck between the cigarette industry and 46 states that settled a bunch of lawsuits by imposing a government-run cartel to jack up the price of cigarettes (in the name of curbing consumption, naturally) and distribute the excess profits to the states and a handful of now-plutocrat trial lawyers. …Lovers of freedom and enemies of regulatory overkill do not exaggerate when they say FDA rules are designed to murder numerous small manufacturers and thousands of “vape” shops that account for about half the electronic-cigarette business.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the bureaucrats at the World Health Organization, who already are pushing for harmonized tobacco taxes, also want to go after vaping.

…who gets a say in what the WHO does is a hotly contest matter. Only thirty members of the public and selected members of the media are treated to limited, stage managed press conferences. Nations like China, with state-owned tobacco monopolies, are warmly welcomed, but anyone with the slightest connection to a private tobacco industry is shown the exit. Large pharmaceutical companies generously fund conference attendees, while their anti-tobacco products like Nicorette gum compete with products that the WHO views unfavorably, like electronic cigarettes. The secretive nature of the conference didn’t go over well with India’s tobacco farmers. After a few minutes of protest outside the convention, 500 farmers were corralled by police and detained inside this local police station. …it’s hard to understand why a $4 billion organization like the WHO feels threatened by the average Indian farmer who lives on $3 a day… Expanding its authority beyond tobacco control, e-cigarettes and vape products now find themselves potentially subject to a worldwide ban. Delegates to the convention have expressed support for “a complete ban on the sale, manufacture, import and export of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems”.

WHO bureaucrats are not the only ones to misbehave. Here’s a column from the Wall Street Journal exposing misbehavior in the United States.

There are many reasons to criticize the FDA’s action, but its most fundamental flaw—and the one that our legal foundation raises in three lawsuits on behalf of Ms. Manor and nine others—is that the rule was finalized by someone without authority to do so. The rule was not issued or signed by either the secretary of health and human services or the FDA commissioner, both Senate-confirmed officials. Instead, it was issued and signed by Leslie Kux, a career bureaucrat at FDA. …The attempted delegation of rule-making authority to someone not appointed as an “Officer of the United States” violates one of the most important separation-of-powers clauses in the Constitution. …Political accountability matters; that’s why the Framers included the Appointments Clause in Article II of the U.S. Constitution.

Last but not least, here’s a must-watch video on this issue from Prager University.

I’m not a big fan of the Food and Drug Administration, mostly because it delays the adoption of life-saving drugs and denies options for critically ill people.

Now that it’s going after e-cigarettes and other products that help smokers kick the habit, the FDA bureaucracy deserves ever-greater scorn.

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Let’s add to our collection of anti-socialism humor.

Let’s start with this gem from Libertarian Reddit.

To be fair, there is a difference between democratic socialism and totalitarian socialism

But this cartoon helps to show that even the benign form of socialism is a high-risk proposition.

So true.

The underlying incentive system in socialism will lead to bad results regardless of whether supporters have good intentions

But many statists don’t have good intentions, which is the point of this cartoon.

At what point does the left admit that “real communism” is brutality and oppression?

Last but not least, whoever put this together deserves credit for a clever bit of satire. Though I suppose we should be fair and acknowledge that communism “only” killed 100 million people.

The bottom line is that socialism is always a failure. The only open issue is whether it is the benign version or totalitarian version.

For more on that discussion, I created a flowchart to illustrate different forms of statism.

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I periodically explain that labor and capital are the two factors of production and that our prosperity depends on how efficiently they are allocated.

But I probably don’t spend enough time highlighting how they are complementary, meaning that workers and capitalists both benefit when the two factors are combined. Simply stated, workers become more productive and earn more when investors buy machines and improve technology.

In other words, the Marxists and socialists are wrong when they argue that workers and capitalists are enemies. Heck, look around the world and compare the prosperity of workers in market-oriented nations with the deprivation of workers in statist economies.

This becomes painfully clear when you read this Wall Street Journal story on the statist hellhole of Venezuela.

Irish packaging giant Smurfit Kappa recently joined other multinational companies abandoning Venezuela…President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government. But this case comes with a twist. Hundreds of employees, who counted on the Irish company for transport, education, housing and food, continue to show up at work. They take turns protecting idled heavy machinery from looting that has become rampant as Venezuela plunges into hyperinflation and economic chaos. …“Help, we need a boss here. We’re desperate,” said Ramón Mendoza, a Smurfit forestry division worker for 17 years. “We’re so scared because we now know that all the government does is destroy everything, every business.” Their plight underscores the devastation that rural Venezuelan communities face as private companies pull out of a country that was once Latin America’s richest. The economy has shrunk by half over the past four years.

Wow, Mr. Mendoza hit the nail on the head when he explained that “all the government does in destroy everything.”

Maybe he can replace Obama as Libertarian Man of the year. Except he would get the award on merit rather than satire.

But let’s not digress. Here’s more bad news from the article.

Workers who live in the surrounding area had received interest-free loans from Smurfit for their houses. Residents said they no longer can count on the four ambulances that the company paid for to serve communities of tin-roofed shacks. At the Agricultural Technical School in the nearby town of Acarigua, which was entirely financed by Smurfit, nearly 200 children living in extreme poverty used to receive an education, lodging, as well as hot meals that have become a luxury as public schools collapse. Over two decades, many of its graduates had gone on to work for Smurfit. The academic year was supposed to start on Oct. 1. But with no money to feed and transport students, there’s silence in the halls… “It’s like poof,” Ms. Sequera said, snapping her fingers. “Our whole future was taken away.”

Needless to say, the thuggish government of Venezuela has no idea how to fix the mess it has caused.

In recent days, the cash-strapped Maduro administration said it had come up with a solution for the Smurfit plant: That the workers would run it themselves. The government said it wouldn’t nationalize it but named a temporary board to help restart operations. The Labor Ministry offered no details over how it would replace Smurfit’s distribution network through which the company supplied its own subsidiaries abroad. But the workers say they can’t run the plant on their own and insist they want bosses—just not from the government. “We know how to move the lumber from here to the plants. What do we know about finances and marketing?” said Mr. Mendoza.

My heart goes out to the former Smurfit workers.

They simply want to do honest work in exchange for honest pay. But the wretched policies of the Venezuelan socialists have made that impossible.

By the way, I’m not implying that employers are motivated by love for workers. Nor am I implying that workers are motivated to create profits for companies. The two sides are in a constant tug of war over how to slice the pie.

But the key thing to understand is that the pie grows when markets are allowed to function.

Which is why this old British political cartoon is a powerfully accurate depiction of real-world economics.

Indeed, I’ll have to add it to my collection of images that teach economics.

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Last month, I explained why trade deficits don’t matter.

I make the same point in this short video from Freedom Partners.

Near the end of the video, I pointed out that unfettered trade is good, whether with your neighbors or with people in other nations.

And I also mentioned trade with people in other states, which gives us a great opportunity to look at how free trade between American states developed and what it has meant for U.S. prosperity.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, John Steele Gordon gives us a valuable history lesson on free trade inside America’s borders.

The Constitution requires free trade, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1824. …The court ruled unanimously…that the power to regulate interstate commerce lay exclusively with the federal government and that states couldn’t impose impediments to that commerce in their parochial self-interest. The economic effect of the ruling was immediate. …Charles Warren, the great historian of the Supreme Court, called Gibbons v. Ogden “the emancipation proclamation of the American economy.” The case made the U.S. the world’s largest free market by flattening state-imposed barriers to “commerce,” a word the court had defined broadly to include trade and navigation. Within a half-century, the American economy rose to become the mightiest in the world, due in no small part to the precedent created by that decision. Free trade allows maximal use of “comparative advantage” to minimize the price of goods for everyone. The lower the prices, the higher the demand and thus the larger the economy.

Sadly, we have not always applied the lessons we learned to trade across our borders.

The Great Depression was a very painful example of what happens when protectionists are in charge.

With its own example of the power of free trade to produce wealth for everyone, one would think that the U.S. would have promoted it world-wide. But for most of the country’s history, Americans have been anything but free traders beyond their own borders. …In 1930, hoping to safeguard the American domestic market for U.S. producers in the looming Depression, Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, the highest in American history. Despite the pleas of more than 1,000 economists, President Herbert Hoover signed it into law. The results were catastrophic. With the U.S. erecting higher tariff walls to protect its internal market, other countries naturally did the same in a game of beggar-thy-neighbor. American exports fell from $5.241 billion in 1929 to $1.161 billion in 1932, a 78% decline. World trade in that period declined from $36 billion to $12 billion—less, adjusted for inflation, than it had been in 1896.

Fortunately, policy has moved in the right direction ever since World War II, with spectacularly positive results.

After World War II, …The U.S., having learned its lesson, moved to lower tariffs world-wide. In 1947, 23 nations signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and began negotiations to lower tariffs, which then averaged 22%, as well as other barriers to trade. In a series of seven negotiations, …the average tariff had been lowered to only 5% by 1999. …The results of this long and often arduous process have been spectacular. World trade has increased exponentially. Merchandise trade amounted to about $58 billion in 1950. By the end of the century it was $5.4 trillion. Only 17 years later, merchandise trade had increased to $17 trillion. Trade in agricultural products and services has increased similarly. Even taking inflation into account, world trade since World War II has increased by a factor of about 30, making the whole world vastly more prosperous.

Last but not least, Gordon closes by pointing out that trade deficits are not a bad thing.

…there is the persistent though discredited belief that countries should strive to maintain a positive balance of trade, with more exports than imports. It is, of course, no more possible for all countries to have a positive balance of trade than it is for all people to be above average in height. Rapidly growing and maturing economies usually run foreign trade deficits, as the U.S. did throughout the 19th century while it grew into an economic superpower. The U.S. is again running large trade deficits, but those deficits are balanced by large capital inflows from foreign investors.

Amen. That’s the point of my video.

Especially the point about a trade deficit simply being the flip side of a capital surplus (now technically known as a financial surplus, but I’m sticking for now with the old terminology).

Let’s close by looking at the historical data on U.S. trade. Notice we had a trade deficit during much of the 1800s when we enjoyed very strong growth.

And also notice the miserable results during the 1930s.

P.S. While I generally don’t worry about the trade deficit/capital surplus, it can be a negative sign if foreigners are using the dollars they earn to buy government debt and prop up D.C.’s fiscal profligacy. But that’s the fault of Washington spending, not trade.

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When I argue with my statist friends about the proper size and scope of government, they accuse me of not wanting public services.

My typical response is to explain that I am a strong supporter of markets as the method to get high-quality roads, schools, and healthcare.

But I’m wondering whether this answer pays too much attention to the trees and doesn’t focus on the forest.

After all, the debate isn’t whether we should be Liberland or Venezuela. It’s whether government should be bigger or smaller compared to what we have now.

So the next time I tussle with my left-leaning buddies, I’m going to share this chart (based on data from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database) and ask them why we can’t be like the fast-growing, small-government nations of Asia.

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To elaborate, not only do jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore enjoy impressive growth, they also get very high scores for infrastructure, education, and health outcomes.

In other words, these nations are role models for “public sector efficiency.”

What they don’t have, by contrast, are expensive welfare states that seem to be correlated with poor outcome for basic public services.

For all intents and purposes, I want to focus the debate on how much government is necessary to get the things people want, sort of like I did in Paris back in 2013.

I asked the audience whether they thought that their government, which consumes 57 percent of GDP, gives them better services than Germany’s government, which consumes 45 percent of GDP. They said no. I then asked if they got better government than citizens of Canada, where government consumes 41 percent of GDP. They said no. And I concluded by asking them whether they got better government than the people of Switzerland, where government is only 34 percent of economic output… Once again, they said no.

I assume (hope) Americans also would say no given these choices. And hopefully they would say yes when asked if we should be like Hong Kong and Singapore.

P.S. If I rotated the above chart clockwise by 90 degrees we’d have a pretty good approximation of the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve.

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We had an election yesterday in the United States (or, as Mencken sagely observed, an advance auction of stolen goods). Here are five things to keep in mind about the results.

First, the GOP did better than most people (including me) expected.

This tweet captures the zeitgeist of last night.

The Senate results were especially disappointing for the Democrats. It does appear the Kavanaugh fight worked out very well for Republicans.

Second, better-than-expected election news for the GOP does not imply better-than-expected news for public policy. Given Trump’s semi-big-government populism, I fear this tweet is right about the increased risk of a counterproductive infrastructure package and a job-destroying increase in the minimum wage.

For what it’s worth, I think we’ll also get even more pork-filled appropriations spending. In other words, busting the spending caps after already busting the spending caps.

The only thing that might save taxpayers is that Democrats in the House may be so fixated on investigating and persecuting Trump that it poisons the well in terms of cooperating on legislation.

Fingers crossed for gridlock!

Third, there was mixed news when looking at the nation’s most important ballot initiatives.

On the plus side, Colorado voters rejected an effort to replace the flat tax with a discriminatory system (in order to waste even more money on government schools), California voters sensibly stopped the spread of rent control, Washington voters rejected a carbon tax, Florida voters expanded supermajority requirements for tax increases, and voters in several states legalized marijuana.

On the minus side, voters in four states opted to expand the bankrupt Medicaid program, Arizona voters sided with teacher unions over children and said no to expanded school choice, and voters in two states increased the minimum wage.

Fourth, Illinois is about to accelerate in the wrong direction. Based on what happened last night, it’s quite likely that the state’s flat tax will be replaced by a class-warfare-based system. In other words, the one bright spot in a dark fiscal climate will be extinguished.

This will accelerate the out-migration of investors, entrepreneurs, and businesses, which is not good news for a state that is perceived to be most likely to suffer a fiscal collapse. It’s just a matter of time before the Land of Lincoln becomes the land of bankruptcy.

Interesting, deep-blue Connecticut voters elected a Republican governor. Given the state’s horrific status, I suspect this won’t make a difference.

Fifth, Obama was a non-factor. Democrats lost almost every race where he campaigned.

Though I should point out that he deserves credit for trying to have an impact in close races. Many top-level politicians, looking to have a good “batting average,” only offer help to campaigns that are likely to prevail.

That being said, this adds to my hypothesis that Obama was basically an inconsequential president.

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If you look at my election predictions from 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016, you’ll see that my occasional insights are matched by some big misses. So I don’t think I offer any special insight.

But since readers seem to enjoy these biennial predictions, I’ll once again go out on a limb. The bottom line is that my Democratic friends will be happy.

Since so many Democratic seats are up, it will be a big defeat if Republicans stay at 51 seats in the Senate. And the loss of more than 45 seats in the House is approaching bloodbath territory.

This outcome is why I advised my GOP friends that it might have been better to lose the 2016 presidential election.

Now let’s consider the potential economic implications, which is what I care about.

The first-order effect is that we’ll have gridlock and that’s not a bad outcome as far as I’m concerned. Simply stated, that means less legislation, which presumably means less mischief from Washington.

But not all gridlock is created equal. Here’s a chart published a couple of days ago by the Washington Post. I’ve highlighted in green relative stock market performance when there’s good gridlock with a Republican Congress and not-so-good gridlock with a Democratic Congress.

I don’t think S&P performance is the best indicator of prosperity, and the “sample size” produced by American elections it rather small, so I caution against over-interpreting this data.

That being said, I’ve crunched budget numbers and revealed that Republican presidents generally allow more spending than Democrats. The only exception to this rule is Ronald Reagan.

Unfortunately, as I warned the day after the 2016 election, Trump is no Reagan. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if the net result (assuming my predictions are remotely accurate) is that the already-excessive growth of spending becomes an even bigger problem.

P.S. There are some very important ballot initiatives that will be decided today.

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The theory of “economic convergence” is based on the notion that poor nations should grow faster than rich nations and eventually achieve the same level of development.

This theory is quite reasonable, but I’ve pointed out that decent public policy (i.e., free markets and small government) is a necessary condition for convergence to occur.

The link between good policy and convergence explains why Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance, have caught up to the United States.

And the adverse effect of bad policy is a big reason why Europe continues to lag.

Moreover, it also explains why some nations with awful policy are de-converging.

Today, let’s look at convergence between Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

Here are some excerpts from a new study published by the European Central Bank.

This paper analyses real income convergence in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe (CESEE) to the most advanced EU economies between 2000 and 2016. …The paper establishes stylised facts of convergence, analyses the drivers of economic growth and identifies factors that might explain the differences between fast- and slow-converging economies in the region. The results show that the most successful CESEE economies in terms of the pace of convergence share common characteristics such as, inter alia, a strong improvement in institutional quality and human capital, more outward-oriented economic policies, favourable demographic developments and the quick reallocation of labour from agriculture into other sectors. Looking ahead, accelerating and sustaining convergence in the region will require further efforts to enhance institutional quality and innovation, reinvigorate investment, and address the adverse impact of population ageing.

The study is filled with fascinating data (at least if you’re a policy wonk).

This chart, for example, shows how many nations are converging (the dots above the diagonal line) and how many nations are falling behind (the dots below the diagonal line).

The yellow dots are Eastern European nations, so it’s good news that all of them are experiencing some degree of convergence.

But the above graphic doesn’t provide any details.

So let’s look at another chart from the study. The blue bar shows per-capita GDP in selected Eastern European nations as a share of the EU average. The yellow dot shows where the countries were in 2008 and the orange dot shows where they were in 2000.

The good news, at least relatively speaking, is that all nations are catching up to Western Europe.

But the report notes that some are catching up faster than others.

The developments were…heterogeneous within CESEE countries that are EU Member States. Some of them (the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) experienced particularly fast convergence in the period analysed. At the same time, other CESEE EU Member States found it hard to converge… In fact, GDP per capita in Croatia and Slovenia diverged from the EU average after 2008… Given these heterogeneous developments, it appears that while in some CESEE countries the middle-income trap hypothesis could be dismissed (at least given their experience so far), in others the signs of a slowdown in convergence after reaching a certain level of economic development are visible.

My one gripe with the ECB study is that there’s a missing piece of analysis.

The report does a great job of documenting relative levels of prosperity over time. And it also has a thorough discussion of the characteristics that are found in fast-converging countries.

But there’s not nearly enough attention paid to the policies that promote and enable convergence. Why, for instance, has there been so much convergence in Estonia and so little convergence in Slovenia?

So I’ve tinkered with the above chart by adding each nation’s ranking for Economic Freedom of the World.

Lo and behold, a quick glance shows that higher-ranked nations (blue numbers indicate a nation is in the “most free” category) have enjoyed the greatest degree of convergence.

Here are some specific observations.

  • The Baltic nations are the biggest success stories of the post-communist world. Thanks to pro-market reforms, they have enjoyed the most convergence.
  • Romania and Slovakia also experienced big income gains. Romania is in the “most free” group of nations and Slovakia was in the “most free” group until a few years ago.
  • Poland has enjoyed the most convergence since 2008. Not coincidentally, that’s a period during which Poland’s economic freedom score climbed from 7.00 to 7.27.
  • Bulgaria also merits a positive mention for a big improvement, doubtlessly driven by a huge improvement (from 5.55 to 7.41) in economic freedom since 2000.
  • Sadly, Slovenia and Croatia have not experienced much convergence, which presumably is caused in part by their comparatively low rankings for economic liberty.

To be sure, there’s not an ironclad relationship between a nation’s annual score and yearly growth rates.

But, over time, poor nations that want convergence almost certainly won’t get the necessary levels of sustained strong growth without high scores for economic liberty.

P.S. Here’s some related research on this topic from 2017. And here’s a column on the evolution of economic liberty (or lack thereof) in Europe.

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Brazil appears to be a tragic example of what happens when societal capital erodes (or never gets established in the first place) and too many people in the country see government as a vehicle for redistribution.

That environment leads to statist policies.

Which presumably helps to explain why Brazil is ranked #144 in Economic Freedom of the World. That’s not as low as some of its neighbors, such as last-place Venezuela (#162) or close-to-last Argentina (#160), but it’s still miserable. The country definitely deserves to be in the “Least Free” group.

Today’s question is whether Brazil also belongs in the “give up hope” group. In other words, has the country passed a “tipping point” of big government?

I’ve previously speculated whether the United States eventually may reach that point, and I definitely think it’s a relevant issue for states like Illinois and nations such as Greece.

A few weeks ago, I would have put Brazil in the same category. But the nation just elected Jair Bolsonaro, a right-populist who promises to shake things up when he takes power.

Mauricio Bento of Brazil’s Instituto Mercado Popular explains that Bolsonaro won in part because of a weak economy.

Most of the coverage from international media has been simplistic and is mostly repeating cliches, such as calling him the “Brazilian Trump”…you might have read about how “terrible” Bolsonaro is, and you might be wondering how he managed to win by such a wide margin. …In the last four years, Brazil has been in a deep economic crisis, suffering from double-digit unemployment rates and a lack of confidence that a recovery is coming.

And in part because his opponent, Fernando Haddad, wanted to undo a handful of recent pro-growth reforms and make Brazil more like Venezuela.

Michel Temer…passed some important reforms, such as the spending cap amendment and the labor law reform… Haddad sought to repeal Temer’s reforms and increase government spending and taxes. This made many business owners and investors support Bolsonaro.

Since I am a big fan of the spending cap that was approved in late 2016, I’m glad that Haddad didn’t win.

But should anybody be happy that Bolsonaro won? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it looks like Brazil is about to have a very good Finance Minister.

The UK-based Financial Times has an encouraging report.

For Brazil’s new finance minister Paulo Guedes, the government of far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro could represent a “Pinochet” moment for Latin America’s largest economy.  Mr Bolsonaro, who won elections last Sunday, ending almost 15 years of leftwing rule, will take over a moribund economy burdened by a bloated public sector when he assumes office on January 1. …The Chilean dictator’s solution was a dose of Milton Friedman-style free market economics from University of Chicago-trained academics. Mr Bolsonaro is considering the same medicine in the form of Mr Guedes, who has a doctorate from Chicago… For supporters of Mr Bolsonaro, the 69-year-old Mr Guedes’ uncompromisingly free market view of the world is the only answer. “Liberals know how to do it,” Mr Guedes once said.

Since pro-market reforms turned Chile into the “Latin Tiger,” let’s hope Guedes is serious.

He definitely has a pro-growth agenda.

Mr Guedes — who first considered joining Mr Bolsonaro’s campaign only last year — has repeatedly said his priority is to end Brazil’s 7 per cent fiscal deficit through privatisations of the country’s 147 state-owned enterprises. ..Mr Guedes’ other plans include a radical simplification of Brazil’s tax system, one of the world’s most convoluted, and reforming the country’s costly pension system, which is threatening to overwhelm the budget.

Sounds like Guedes has the right ideas. Assuming Bolsonaro does what is right for his country (such as much-needed pension reform), Guedes could be the Jose Pinera of Brazil.

Here’s a chart from Economic Freedom of the World. It shows how economic liberalization produced a dramatic increase in freedom between 1975 and 1995. Chile is now ranked #15 for economic liberty. Brazil, by contrast, has slowly lost ground since a period of pro-market reform between 1985 and 2000.

I’ll close with a video that was released before the recent Brazilian election.

It’s directed to mushy-headed young people in America, but it neatly summarizes how Brazil go in trouble.

A great video. I especially appreciate the indirect endorsement of my Golden Rule. The criticisms of former President Lula also are spot on, though I once expressed perverse admiration for him.

In any event, let’s hope President-Elect Bolsonaro give Mr. Guedes free rein to bring economic liberty to Brazil.

P.S. Bolsonaro is good on gun rights, so that’s a positive sign.

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There are three reasons why the right kind of tax reform can help the economy grow faster.

  1. Lower tax rates give people more incentive to earn income.
  2. Less double taxation boosts incentives to save and invest.
  3. Fewer loopholes improves incentives for economic efficiency.

Let’s focus on the third item. I don’t like special preferences in the tax code because it’s bad for growth when the tax code lures people into misallocating their labor and capital. Ethanol, for instance, shows how irrational decisions are subsidized by the IRS.

Moreover, I’d rather have smart and capable people in the private sector focusing how to create wealth instead of spending their time figuring out how to manipulate the internal revenue code.

That’s why, in my semi-dream world, I’d like to see a flat tax.* Not only would there be a low rate and no double taxation, but there also would be no distortions.

But in the real world, I’m happy to make partial progress.

That’s why I was happy that last year’s tax bill produced a $10,000 cap for the state and local tax deduction and reduced the value of other write-offs by increasing the standard deduction. Yes, I’d like to wipe out the deductions for home mortgage interest, charitable giving, and state and local taxes, but a limit is better than nothing.

And I’m also happy that lower tax rates are an indirect way of reducing the value of loopholes and other preferences.

To understand the indirect benefits of low tax rates, consider this new report from the Washington Post. Unsurprisingly, we’re discovering that a less onerous death tax means less demand for clever tax lawyers.

A single aging rich person would often hire more than a dozen people — accountants, estate administrators, insurance agents, bank attorneys, financial planners, stockbrokers — to make sure they paid as little as possible in taxes when they died. But David W. Klasing, an estate tax attorney in Orange County, Calif., said he’s seen a sharp drop in these kinds of cases. The steady erosion of the federal estate tax, shrunk again by the Republican tax law last fall, has dramatically reduced the number of Americans who have to worry about the estate tax — as well as work for those who get paid to worry about it for them, Klasing said. In 2002, about 100,000 Americans filed estate tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service, according to the IRS. In 2018, only 5,000 taxpayers are expected to file these returns… “You had almost every single tax professional trying to grab as much of that pot as they could,” Klasing said. “Now almost everybody has had to find other work.”

Needless to say, I’m delighted that these people are having to “find other work.”

By the way, I’m not against these people. They were working to protect families from an odious form of double taxation, which was a noble endeavor.

I’m simply stating that I’m glad there’s less need for their services.

Charles “Skip” Fox, president of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, said he frequently hears of lawyers shifting their focus away from navigating the estate tax, and adds that there has been a downturn in the number of young attorneys going into the estate tax field. Jennifer Bird-Pollan, who teaches the estate tax to law students at the University of Kentucky, said that nearly a decade ago her classes were packed with dozens of students. Now, only a handful of students every so often may be interested in the subject or pursuing it as a career. “There’s about as much interest in [the class] law and literature,” Pollan said. “The very, very wealthy are still hiring estate tax lawyers, but basically people are no longer paying $1,000 an hour for advice about this stuff. They don’t need it.”

Though I am glad one lawyer is losing business.

Stacey Schlitz, a tax attorney in Nashville, said when she got out of law school about a decade ago roughly 80 percent of her clients were seeking help with their estate taxes. Now, less than 1 percent are, she said, adding that Tennessee’s state inheritance tax was eliminated by 2016. “It is disappointing that this area of my business dried up so that such a small segment of society could get even richer,” Schlitz said in an email.

I hope every rich person in Nashville sees this story and steers clear of Ms. Schlitz, who apparently wants her clients to be victimized by government.

Now let’s shift to the business side of the tax code and consider another example showing why lower tax rates produce more sensible behavior.

Now that the corporate tax rate has been reduced, American companies no longer have as much desire to invest in Ireland.

US investment in Ireland declined by €45bn ($51bn) in 2017, in another sign that sweeping tax reforms introduced by US president Donald Trump have impacted the decisions of American multinational companies. …Economists have been warning that…Trump’s overhaul of the US tax code, which aimed to reduce the use of foreign low-tax jurisdictions by US companies, would dent inward investment in Ireland. …In November 2017, Trump went so far as to single out Ireland, saying it was one of several countries that corporations used to offshore profits. “For too long our tax code has incentivised companies to leave our country in search of lower tax rates. It happens—many, many companies. They’re going to Ireland. They’re going all over,” he said.

Incidentally, I’m a qualified fan of Ireland’s low corporate rate. Indeed, I hope Irish lawmakers lower the rate in response to the change in American law.

And I’d like to see the US rate fall even further since it’s still too high compared to other nations.

Heck, it would be wonderful to see tax competition produce a virtuous cycle of rate reductions all over the world.

But that’s a topic I’ve addressed before.

Today’s lesson is simply that lower tax rates reduce incentives to engage in tax planning. I’ll close with simple thought experiment showing the difference between a punitive tax system and reasonable tax system.

  • 60 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you only get to keep 40 cents of every additional dollar you earn. But if you find some sort of deduction, exemption, or exclusion, you increase your take-home pay by an additional 60 cents. That’s a good deal even if the tax preference loses 30 cents of economic value.
  • 20 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you get to keep 80 cents of every dollar you earn. With that reasonable rate, you may not even care about seeking out deductions, exemptions, and exclusions. And if you do look for a tax preference, you certainly won’t pick one where you lose anything close to 20 cents of economic value.

The bottom line is that lower tax rates are a “two-fer.” They directly help economic growth by increasing incentives to earn income and they indirectly help economic growth by reducing incentives to engage in inefficient tax planning.

*My semi-dream world is a flat tax. My dream world is when the federal government is so small (as America’s Founders envisioned) that there’s no need for any broad-based tax.

P.S. It’s not the focus of today’s column, but since I talked about loopholes, it’s worth pointing out that they should be properly defined. Sadly, that simple task is too challenging for the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office (or even the Republican party).

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The mid-term elections take place on Tuesday and the crowd in DC is focused on who will control the House and Senate. I’ll make my (sometimes dubious, sometimes accurate) congressional predictions next Monday.

The goal today is to call attention to the key initiatives and referendums that also will occur next week.

As a matter of logic, I can’t really argue with the notion that voting is a waste of time. Nonetheless, I hope the right people in certain states will be illogical.

As far as I’m concerned, the most important contest is in Colorado, where voters are being asked to replace the state’s flat tax with a discriminatory system of graduated rates. Here’s how CNBC describes the awful proposal.

Amendment 73 would break up its current flat tax of 4.63 percent, adding four new individual income tax brackets. Taxpayers earning less than $150,000 would see no change; at $150,001, a new rate of 5 percent would kick in, with a new top rate of 8.25 percent on taxable income over $500,000. The measure also includes a boost in the corporate income rate (from 4.63 percent to 6 percent).

Since I’m a fan of the flat tax (combined with TABOR, it helps to explain the state’s prosperity), I obviously hope voters reject this self-destructive scheme to turn Colorado into California.

The second-most important referendum is probably the battle over school choice in Arizona. Here’s how Reason characterizes that battle.

…since we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that governments should mug us in order to fund an army of loyal employees and their fumbling attempts to hammer knowledge into our kids’ heads, attempts to provide widely accessible alternatives to government schooling inevitably involve diverting some of those stolen funds. And diverting those funds requires political battles against entrenched allies of the state monopoly—such as that playing out in Arizona over an effort to expand a school voucher program. …Last year, lawmakers voted to expand eligibility for the empowerment scholarship accounts program to all students, with participation capped at around 30,000 kids. But opponents of school choice won a battle to put the program’s expansion on the ballot as Proposition 305. …As of last week, polling on Proposition 305 conducted by Suffolk University and the Arizona Republic shows a plurality of Arizona voters (41 percent) supporting expansion of the program, with 32 percent opposed and 27 percent undecided.

The third-most important referendum is actually four different measures. There are proposals to expand Medicaid in Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, and Utah.

The Wall Street Journal editorializes about these dangerous initiatives.

One of the worst deals in state spending is coming to a red state near you, and that’s expanding Medicaid to adult men above the poverty line. …Expansion extends the benefit to prime-age adults without children up to 138% of the poverty line. The feds pay more than 90% of the cost for the new beneficiaries… Every state that has expanded Medicaid has blown the budget by spending more money on more people. The cost overruns are more than double on average. …Medicaid is already the fastest growing line item in nearly every state in the country. …The idea that the feds will continue to pick up 90% of the tab forever is fantasy. The GOP has vowed to equalize the funding formula and make states pay closer to 30% to 50% like they do for traditional Medicaid. States shouldn’t assume that Democrats will be more merciful when they want to pay for something else and stick more of the Medicaid bill on states.

The fourth-most important measure to watch is a referendum for a big carbon tax in the state of Washington. The Wall Street Journal opined about this revenue grab.

Two years ago nearly 60% of Washington voters rejected a ballot initiative to impose a “revenue neutral” carbon tax. Green groups opposed the referendum because it wouldn’t generate money for environmental largess. …Liberals have now fixed what they thought was the fatal flaw of the first referendum—namely, revenue neutrality. This year’s initiative would impose a $15 per ton carbon “fee” that would increase by $2 per year. …the $2.3 billion in revenue it is projected to generate over the next five years would mostly be earmarked for “clean air and energy” programs… But revenues are fungible, and the carbon tax proceeds would invariably finance government spending in other areas. …The tax would raise gas prices by 13 cents a gallon in 2020 and 59 cents a gallon by 2035. Washington currently has the third highest gas prices in the country after Hawaii and California… National Economic Research Associates estimates that the tax would cost Washington households on average $440 in 2020 and would reduce state economic growth by 0.4% over the next two years. …liberals care more about increasing tax revenue to spend than they do about reducing emissions.

This is exactly why I warn against a national carbon tax. No matter what proponents say, it will wind up being an excuse to finance even more wasteful spending.

Last but not least, our fifth-most important ballot initiative is from California, which has a very misguided referendum that would allow more rent control in the state. Michael Tanner has an appropriate description of this scheme in National Review.

But the prize for perhaps the worst ballot idea goes — naturally — to California, which will vote on whether to allow local communities to impose rent control. Approval can be guaranteed to benefit the wealthy and middle class while reducing the availability of rental housing for the poor. It’s almost as if the measure’s supporters had never glimpsed an economics textbook.

For what it’s worth, one of the state’s Senators, Kamala Harris, has a national plan to wreck housing markets.

Here are some additional initiatives on taxes which merit a brief mention, particularly since they may have an impact on competitiveness.

  • Arizona has an initiative to prevent politicians from imposing any new sales taxes on services.
  • There’s a measure to increase tobacco taxes in South Dakota.
  • In California, there’s a referendum to repeal a recent hike in the gas tax and to require future increases to be approved by voters.
  • There’s also an initiative in the Golden State to boost the sales tax to finance more transportation spending.
  • In Florida, where there’s an initiative to require a two-thirds vote of the legislature to increase revenue.
  • Oregon voters will choose whether to impose a requirement that three-fifths of the legislature vote for indirect revenue increases.
  • North Carolina voters will decide whether to lower the maximum-allowable tax rate from 10 percent to 7 percent.

From a libertarian perspective, I’ll also be paying attention to a measure to restrict gun rights in the state of Washington, as well as an initiative to legalize marijuana in Michigan.

There are initiatives to increase the minimum wage in Arkansas (to $11.00 per hour) and Missouri (to $12.00 per hour). If they are approved, the consequences will be both negative and predictable.

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President Trump thinks he can boost Republicans next Tuesday by promising a new round of tax relief for the middle class.

I’m skeptical of his sincerity, as noted in this segment from a recent interview, but I also warn that his proposed tax cut is impractical because Republicans have done a lousy job on spending. And I also point out that it is ironic that Trump is urging lower taxes for the middle class when his protectionist tariffs (trade taxes) are hurting the same people.

At first, I wasn’t going to bother writing about this topic for the simple reason that Trump isn’t serious (if he was, he wouldn’t have meekly allowed the big spenders to bust the spending caps).

But then I saw that Tom Giovanetti of the Institute for Policy Innovation wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal explaining how reforming Social Security would be great news for lower- and middle-income taxpayers.

…44% of Americans no longer pay any federal income tax at all, and many more pay very little. …On the other hand, low- and middle-income workers do send the government a large share of their earnings in the form of payroll taxes. That same family of four pays $12,240 at the 15.3% combined rate for Social Security and Medicare. If you want to cut taxes for middle-class and low-income workers, that’s where you have to do it. …instead of…a payroll-tax cut of 4% of income, why not redirect that same 4% into personal retirement accounts for every worker? …With no decline in disposable income, American workers would suddenly be investing for retirement at market rates in accounts they own and control, instead of relying on Congress to keep Social Security solvent.

Not only would personal retirement accounts be good for workers, they also would help deal with the looming entitlement crisis.

America’s entitlements are on a path to collapse, and few politicians—including Mr. Trump—have an appetite to do anything about it. When the crisis comes, no tax increase will be big enough to solve the problem. Knowing the U.S. government is eventually going to fudge its commitment to retirees, policy makers should at least give workers a fair chance to amass the savings they will need to support themselves. The back-door solution to the entitlement crisis is to make workers wealthy. Will you worry about Social Security’s solvency or a Medicare collapse if you have more than enough money in a real retirement account to buy a generous annuity and cover your health insurance?

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is the right approach. Both for workers and the country.

To be sure, I don’t think it’s likely since Trump opposes sensible entitlement reform. But Tom’s column at least provides a teaching moment.

I’m not sure when we’ll have a chance to address this simmering crisis. But if you’re wondering whether changes are necessary, check out this chart I put together earlier this year showing Social Security’s annual shortfall (adjusted for inflation, so we’re comparing apples-to-apples).

P.S. This video has more details on the benefits of personal retirement accounts.

P.P.S. And this video shows why the left’s plan to “fix” Social Security would be so destructive.

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