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Archive for August, 2019

While it’s very good to have a clean environment, many environmentalists don’t understand cost-benefit analysis. As such, they make our lives less pleasant – inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, inadequate washing machines, crummy dishwashers, dribbling showers, and dysfunctional gas cans – for little if any benefit.

We can add recycling to that list.

To be sure, all the hassle and time of sorting our garbage might be an acceptable cost if something was being achieved.

Unfortunately, as Jeff Jacoby has explained, that’s not the case. Not even close.

Let’s explore the issue.

In an article for the American Institute for Economic Research, Professor Michael Munger explains that most recycling actually is a net negative for the environment.

…I was invited to a conference called Australia Recycles! …Everyone there, everyone, represented either a municipal or provincial government, or a nonprofit recycling advocacy group, or a company that manufactured and sold complicated and expensive recycling equipment. …Recycling requires substantial infrastructure for pickup, transportation, sorting, cleaning, and processing. …For recycling to be a socially commendable activity, it has to pass one of two tests: the profit test, or the net environmental-savings test. If something passes the profit test, it’s likely already being done. People are already recycling gold or other commodities from the waste stream, if the costs of doing so are less than the amount for which the resource can be sold. …The real question arises with mandatory recycling programs — people recycle because they will be fined if they don’t, not because they expect to make money… If you add up the time being wasted on recycling rituals, it’s even more expensive to ask each household to do it. The difference is that this is an implicit tax, a donation required of citizens, and doesn’t cost money from the public budget. But time is the least renewable of all resources… For recycling to make any sense, it must cost less to dispose of recycled material than to put the stuff in a landfill. But we have plenty of landfill space, in most of the country. And much of the heaviest material we want to recycle, particularly glass, is chemically inert and will not decompose in a landfill. …landfilling glass does no environmental harm… So, is recycling useful? As I said at the outset, for some things it is. Aluminum cans and corrugated cardboard, if they can be collected clean and at scale, are highly recyclable. …But for most other things, recycling harms the environment. …If you care about the environment, you should put your bottles and other glass in the regular garbage, every time.

Jon Miltimore explains, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, that hundreds of cities have repealed recycling mandates because they simply don’t make sense.

…after sending my five-year-old daughter off to school, she came home reciting the same cheerful environmental mantra I was taught in elementary school. “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” she beamed, proud to show off a bit of rote learning. The moral virtue of recycling is rarely questioned in the United States. …recycling is tricky business. A 2010 Columbia University study found that just 16.5 percent of the plastic collected by the New York Department of Sanitation was “recyclable.” “This results in nearly half of the plastics collected being landfilled,” researchers concluded. …hundreds of cities across the country are abandoning recycling efforts. …Like any activity or service, recycling is an economic activity. The dirty little secret is that the benefits of recycling have been dubious for some time. …How long? Perhaps from the very beginning. …there are the energy and resources that go into recycling. How much water do Americans spend annually rinsing items that end up in a landfill? How much fuel is spent deploying fleets of barges and trucks across highways and oceans, carrying tons of garbage to be processed at facilities that belch their own emissions? …It’s time to admit the recycling mania is a giant placebo. It makes people feel good, but the idea that it improves the condition of humans or the planet is highly dubious.

On a related topic, another FEE column even shows that anti-waste campaigns may actually increase waste.

To reduce waste, most governments run communication campaigns. Many try to make consumers feel guilty by telling them how much people like them waste (food, paper, water…). …The idea is that once people realise how much they waste, they will stop. Unfortunately, research has shown that when people are told that people like them misbehave, this makes them act worse, not better. In a June 2018 study, we confirm this backfiring effect in a series of studies on waste… Indeed, we found that backfiring effects of anti-waste messages happened because of difficulty. When consumer read that everyone wastes a lot, they think that it must be difficult to cut waste – so they don’t even try.

Let’s get back to the specific issue of recycling.

The fact that it doesn’t make sense is hardly a new revelation.

Way back in 1996, John Tierny had a very thorough article in the New York Time Magazine that summarized the shortcomings of recycling.

If you don’t want to read this long excerpt, all you need to know is that landfills are cheap, safe, and plentiful.

Believing that there was no more room in landfills, Americans concluded that recycling was their only option. Their intentions were good and their conclusions seemed plausible. Recycling does sometimes makes sense — for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. And since there’s no shortage of landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative. Mandatory recycling programs…offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources. …Americans became racked with garbage guilt…  Suddenly, just as central planning was going out of fashion in eastern Europe, America devised a national five-year plan for trash. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgated a “Waste Hierarchy” that ranked trash-disposal options: recycling at the top, composting and waste-to-energy incinerators in the middle, landfills at the bottom. …Politicians across the country…enacted laws mandating recycling and setting arbitrary goals…, typically requiring that at least 40 percent of trash be recycled, often even more — 50 percent in New York and California, 60 percent in New Jersey, 70 percent in Rhode Island. …The Federal Government and dozens of states passed laws that required public agencies, newspapers and other companies to purchase recycled materials. …America today has a good deal more landfill space available than it did 10 years ago. …there’s little reason to worry about modern landfills, which by Federal law must be lined with clay and plastic, equipped with drainage and gas-collection systems, covered daily with soil and monitored regularly for underground leaks. …Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side. …This doesn’t seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America. …The millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States. …many experts and public officials acknowledge that America could simply bury its garbage, but they object to this option because it diverts trash from recycling programs. Recycling, which was originally justified as the only solution to a desperate national problem, has become a goal in itself… The leaders of the recycling movement…raise money and attract new members through their campaigns to outlaw “waste” and prevent landfills from opening. They get financing from public and private sources (including the recycling industry) to research and promote recycling. By turning garbage into a political issue, environmentalists have created jobs for themselves as lawyers, lobbyists, researchers, educators and moral guardians.

The bottom line is that most recycling programs impose a fiscal and personal cost on people for very meager environmental benefits.

Indeed, the benefits are often negative once indirect costs are added to the equation.

So why is there still support in some quarters?

In part, it’s driven by contributions from the companies that get paid to process recycled material.

But that’s only part of the story. Recycling is a way for some people to feel better about themselves. Sort of an internalized version of virtue-signalling.

That’s not a bad thing. I like a society where people care about the environment and feel guilty about doing bad things, like throwing trash out car windows.

But I’m a bit old fashioned in that I want them to feel good about doing things that actually make sense.

P.S. There’s a Washington version of recycling that is based on taxpayer money getting shifted back and forth between politicians and special interests.

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Three years ago, I shared a cartoon that succinctly summarized the problem with socialism and the welfare state.

It’s the same lesson that we also get from Thomas Sowell, which is that redistribution over time creates an ever-larger number of dependents financed by ever-higher taxes on workers.

Or, as this Wizard-of-Id parody and this Little-Red-Hen parody make clear, why work hard if you can get things for free?

Now I have a different way of illustrating the problem with socialism. Here’s a very clever tweet from Young Americans Against Socialism.

Very clever and amusing.

I will add this short video to my collection of socialism humor, but it actually makes a very serious point.

Socialists and other redistributionists want equality of outcomes, but they don’t think about the unintended consequences of such an approach.

Some people will be lured into sloth and dependency, for instance, while others – particularly those with greater ability and/or greater work ethic – will choose to be less productive (especially because they also get hit with higher tax burdens to finance all the handouts).

Bastiat wrote that the failure to consider the “unseen” was the defining quality of a bad economist.

And since we’re on that topic, here’s an example of Crazy Bernie failing to appreciate that actions have unintended consequences.

A perfect metaphor for what would happen to the economy if some of his policies were imposed on the economy.

Except Bernie would still have his comfortable life. It’s the rest of us who would suffer.

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It’s time to add some new material to our collection of gun control satire.

We’ll start with this clever use of rhetoric from the debate over illegal immigration.

Seems like a very humane approach.

Next, fans of Willy Wonka will appreciate this side trip into the land of make-believe.

By the way, I’m always happy to share clever humor from the other side, such as this depiction of an American breakfast.

So enjoy this German-language explanation of how to smuggle candy into an American theater.

This next bit of satire is amusing, though I wish its creator just used a random collection of David Hogg-types for the lower frame. As explained by the Pink Pistols, gun rights are especially important for sometimes-persecuted groups.

Three years ago, I shared an amusing comparison of how Europeans and Texans respond to terrorism.

Well, here’s a left-wing version of Paul Revere, warning neighbors of a looming terror attack.

Finally, let’s close with an amusing modification of the one-liner that Elizabeth Warren uses to denigrate gun owners.

We can safely assume that Ms. Warren has never seen this image. Or, if she has, she reached the wrong conclusion.

P.S. On a more serious note about gun control, I invite readers to peruse my collection (here, here, here, here, and here) of honest leftists.

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A few days ago, I observed in a television interview that economists are lousy forecasters.

This was not a new revelation. Back in early 2010, I shared a graph that succinctly illustrated why economists shouldn’t be trusted when they make economic forecasts (later that year, I pointed out that macroeconomists were the real problem).

In 2013, I wrote “Don’t Trust Economists, Part II” based on a remarkable example of fraud in Portugal.

Now it’s time for Part III.

We’ll start with a reminder that economists can’t forecast their way out of a wet paper bag. Here’s an excerpt from a 2001 article in the Economist.

As recently as February, 95% of American economists said it wouldn’t happen, but it has. America is now in recession… Even in early September few economists were forecasting a recession. Now it appears that one had already been under way for almost six months. …Why are recessions so hard to forecast? A study published last year by the International Monetary Fund looked at the economists’ record. It is bad. Of 60 recessions in developed and developing economies during the 1990s, two-thirds remained undetected by consensus forecasts as late as April of the year in which the recessions occurred. In one-quarter of cases, the consensus forecast in October of that year still expected positive growth.

Robert Samuelson has a more recent and comprehensive list of how economists are miserably bad when they try to forecast major economic trends.

The most intriguing and indisputable thing we have learned about economists in recent decades is that they don’t know nearly as much as they thought they knew. …As an economic journalist for roughly half a century, I have slowly and somewhat reluctantly come to the conclusion that many economists (and this applies across the political spectrum) often don’t know what they’re talking about… Time after time, economists have failed to foresee major economic trends. In recent years, global interest rates have plunged to historically low levels. …But most economists did not anticipate the declines and still can’t fully explain them. Going back a bit further, economists did not predict double-digit inflation (monthly peaks of 12 percent in 1974 and 1975 and 15 percent in 1980). …Now, ironically, inflation has unexpectedly remained low (generally less than 2 percent annually ), and many economists have been baffled by that, too. …Over the past five decades, I cannot remember one instance when economists have correctly forecast a major shift in productivity growth, whether up or down. …Of course, the most conspicuous example of this ignorance gap is the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the Great Recession. “Why did nobody notice it?” Queen Elizabeth famously asked. …The larger cause of the ignorance gap is the very complexity and obscurity of a $20 trillion economy (the United States) or an $85 trillion economy (the world). To say it is changing in detailed and often-unanticipated ways is simply to affirm that mere mortals, including economists, have never been very good at predicting the future.

In other words, this cartoon is very accurate.

So what’s the solution?

In my fantasy world, everyone would simply ignore economic forecasts and instead would focus on the conditions necessary for stronger long-run growth.

Sadly, that won’t happen.

So what about some sort of “quality control”?

That might be nice in theory, but it wouldn’t work in practice.

Which is why I’m happy that there isn’t much support in the profession for occupational licensing.

Let’s set aside the problem of economic forecasting.

Binyamin Applebaum of the New York Times has a column that criticizes economists for a different reason.

He frets that economists have enabled a big shift toward free markets.

As the quarter century of growth that followed World War II sputtered to a close, economists moved into the halls of power, instructing policymakers that growth could be revived by minimizing government’s role in managing the economy. They also warned that a society that sought to limit inequality would pay a price in the form of less growth. …In the four decades between 1969 and 2008, economists played a leading role in slashing taxation of the wealthy and in curbing public investment. They supervised the deregulation of major sectors, including transportation and communications. …they demonized trade unions and opposed worker protections like minimum wage laws.

While I hope his overall premise is accurate, his specific assertions are an incoherent mess.

He wants readers to believe that economists were largely ignored prior to 1969 and suddenly wielded great influence thereafter. Yet he offers zero evidence for that hypothesis.

Moreover, it was Arthur Okun’s work for Brookings (hardly a citadel of libertarian thinking) that increased awareness of the tradeoff between redistribution and growth.

Much more troubling, though, is his assertion that the free-market orthodoxy ruled between 1969-2008.

That’s ahistorical nonsense. The Nixon years, for instance, were probably the most statist period in America’s post-WWII history.

And we also got plenty of bad policy under Bush I, Bush II, and Obama.

Yes, policy did shift in the right direction under Reagan and Clinton. And it’s also quite possible that the progress during those years more than offset the bad policies of other presidents.

But it’s utterly absurd to think of 1969-2008 as an era of continuous economic liberty.

Here are some further excerpts.

Economists even persuaded policymakers to assign a dollar value to human life — around $10 million in 2019 — to assess whether regulations were worthwhile.

This is actually part of life-saving cost-benefit analysis.

And it’s not some sort of libertarian scheme, unless Applebaum thinks the folks at Brookings are part of some laissez-faire conspiracy.

Though I’m glad he gives some credit (from his perspective, blame) to Milton Friedman.

The most important figure, however, was Milton Friedman, an elfin libertarian who refused to take a job in Washington, but whose writings and exhortations seized the imagination of policymakers. Friedman offered an appealingly simple answer for the nation’s problems: Government should get out of the way. He joked that if bureaucrats gained control of the Sahara, there would soon be a shortage of sand.

He concludes by fixating on inequality.

The rise of economics is a primary reason for the rise of inequality. …Markets are constructed by people…and people can change the rules. It’s time to discard the judgment of economists that society should turn a blind eye to inequality. Reducing inequality should be a primary goal of public policy. …Willful indifference to the distribution of prosperity over the last half century is an important reason the very survival of liberal democracy is now being tested by nationalist demagogues. …our shared bonds will last longer if we can find ways to reduce the strain.

If he cares about the well-being of poor people, he should be fixated instead on growth.

For what it’s worth, I suspect he shares the IMF’s perspective and would willing to subject the poor to lower living standards if the rich suffered even bigger losses.

By the way, Ramesh Ponnuru is also quite critical of Applebaum’s column.

Let’s close with some humor.

Professor Michael Munger wrote a column for FEE analyzing economist jokes.

The whole thing is worth reading, but I’ll limit myself to sharing two of the jokes.

An economics graduate student was crossing a road one day when a frog called out to him and said, “If you kiss me, I’ll turn into a beautiful princess.” He bent over, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket. The frog spoke up again and said, “If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will stay with you for one week.” The graduate student took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it, and returned it to his pocket. Desperate, the frog then cried out, “If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I’ll stay with you and do anything you want.” Again the grad student took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back into his pocket. Finally, the frog asked, “What is the matter? I’ve told you I’m a beautiful princess, that I’ll be your girlfriend and do anything you want. Why won’t you kiss me?” The grad student said, “Look, I’m an economist. I have no idea what it would even be like to have a girlfriend. But a talking frog has got to be worth a fortune.”

And here’s the second example.

A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A box washes ashore, and when they open it, it turns out to be a box of canned soup. But how to open the cans? The physicist says, “Let’s break the can open with a rock, using precisely the correct vector of force so the contents aren’t spilled.” The chemist says, “Let’s build a fire and heat the can just to the point where the contents break the metal but don’t explode.” The economist says, “Well, let’s do this in an a priori manner. First, assume that we have a can-opener…”

Last but not least, here’s Adam Smith’s contribution to the game of rock-paper-scissors.

Not as good as my collection of jokes about communism and socialism, but clever is a subtle way.

P.S. Are economists useless, despicable, and loathsome? I report, you decide.

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My primary job is dealing with misguided public policy in the United States.

I spend much of my time either trying to undo bad policies with good reform (flat tax, spending restraint, regulatory easing, trade liberalization) or fighting off additional bad interventions (Green New Deal, protectionism, Medicare for All, class warfare taxes).

Seems like there is a lot to criticize, right?

Yes, but sometimes the key to success is being “less worse” than your competitors. So while I’m critical of many bad policies in the United States, it’s worth noting that America nonetheless ranks #6 for overall economic liberty according to the Fraser Institute.

As such, it’s not surprising that America has higher living standards than most other developed nations according to the “actual individual consumption” data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And America’s advantage isn’t trivial. We’re more than 46 percent higher than the average for OECD member nations.

The gap is so large that I’ve wondered how lower-income people in the United States would rank compared to average people in other countries.

Well, the folks at Just Facts have investigated precisely this issue using World Bank data and found some remarkable results.

…after accounting for all income, charity, and non-cash welfare benefits like subsidized housing and Food Stamps—the poorest 20% of Americans consume more goods and services than the national averages for all people in most affluent countries. …In other words, if the U.S. “poor” were a nation, it would be one of the world’s richest. …The World Bank publishes a comprehensive dataset on consumption that isn’t dependent on the accuracy of household surveys and includes all goods and services, but it only provides the average consumption per person in each nation—not the poorest people in each nation. However, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis published a study that provides exactly that for 2010. Combined with World Bank data for the same year, these datasets show that the poorest 20% of U.S. households have higher average consumption per person than the averages for all people in most nations of the OECD and Europe… The high consumption of America’s “poor” doesn’t mean they live better than average people in the nations they outpace, like Spain, Denmark, Japan, Greece, and New Zealand. …Nonetheless, the fact remains that the privilege of living in the U.S. affords poor people with more material resources than the averages for most of the world’s richest nations.

There are some challenges in putting together this type of comparison, so the folks at Just Facts are very clear in showing their methodology.

They’ve certainly come up with results that make sense, particularly when compared their results with the OECD AIC numbers.

Here’s one of the charts from the report.

You can see that the bottom 20 percent of Americans do quite well compared to the average persons in other developed nations.

By the way, the report from Just Facts also criticizes the New York Times for dishonest analysis of poverty. Since I’ve felt compelled to do the same thing, I can definitely sympathize.

The bottom line is that free markets and limited government are the best way to help lower-income people enjoy more prosperity.

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I’m getting worried that Senator Bernie Sanders is fading in the polls.

That doesn’t make me happy. I want Crazy Bernie to stay relevant.

Why? Because he’s an endless source of clever satire.

Previous editions of Bernie humor can be found here and here.

For today’s edition, let’s start with the fact that Bernie has used political office to become a millionaire, yet he doesn’t put his money where his mouth is (the federal government actually has a website for people who are foolish enough to pay extra tax).

Bernie also has an opinion on the protests in Hong Kong. At least according to the satirists at the Babylon Bee.

As soon as Bernie Sanders heard about the democratic protesters in Hong Kong, he knew something had to be done. The U.S. senator quickly chartered a flight to Hong Kong… Sanders bravely stood in the middle of the conflict between police and protesters, shouting at the “ungrateful little dissenters”… “Remember, you could have it a lot worse—you could be in America!” Sanders bellowed as police officers for the totalitarian regime beat protesters in the background. …Sanders continued his long-winded rant about the need for the government to own the means of production, how great breadlines are, and how bad things are in capitalist America as protesters got dragged away by police to be disappeared. “Just think—in America, we have to pick between 14 different types of deodorant!” he said, his fingers flopping around like limp sausages.

While this story is amusing, the folks at Babylon Bee screwed up. The people of Hong Kong aren’t protesting because they live in a communist system.

They’re protesting because they’re worried that China will sooner or later absorb them into a communist system.

But since so much real media is “fake but accurate” (or is it “accurate but fake”?), I’m not going to worry about details.

Let’s now shift to another example of Babylon Bee satire.

Showing himself to be a compassionate man of the people who cares deeply about the plight of the downtrodden, Senator Bernie Sanders selflessly offered a stack of bills to a homeless man on the street Monday after fishing the money out of a purse sitting next to a woman on a park bench. Sanders had been…on the prowl for people who looked like they had too much money when he leaped out to steal the wallet from the purse… The Vermont senator..saw a homeless man sitting nearby, begging for money. Moved by the pathetic sight of the man’s disheveled appearance, Sanders found it in his heart to commit a random act of kindness, digging through the wallet until he was able to find several $20 bills and slipping them into the man’s hand. “It’s not theft—it’s redistribution,” he told reporters later. “I was simply…doing what any old citizen couldn’t do without committing a crime. But it’s different because I’m the government, see?” At publishing time, the Senator was seen pocketing the rest of the money.

How very generous he is with other people’s money!

Last but not least, here’s a game from Imgur that allows anyone to prepare a Bernie speech. For some reason, it reminds me of State-of-the-Union bingo during the Obama years.

For other examples of Bernie humor, you can click hereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

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When I wrote last month about the Green New Deal, I warned that it was cronyism on steroids.

Simply stated, the proposal gives politicians massive new powers to intervene and this would be a recipe for staggering levels of Solyndra-style corruption.

Well, the World Bank has some new scholarly research that echoes my concerns. Two economists investigated the relationship with the regulatory burden and corruption.

Empirical studies such as Meon and Sekkat (2005) and De Rosa et al. (2010) show that corruption is more damaging for economic performance at higher levels of regulation or lower levels of governance quality. …Building on the above literature, in this paper, we use firm-level survey data on 39,732 firms in 111 countries collected by the World Bank’s Enterprise Surveys between 2009 and 2017 to test the hypothesis that corruption impedes firm productivity more at higher levels of regulation. …estimate the model using sample weighted OLS (Ordinary Least Squares) regression analysis.

And what did they discover?

We find that the negative relationship between corruption and productivity is amplified at high levels of regulation. In fact, at low levels of regulation, the relationship between corruption and productivity is insignificant. …we find that a 1 percent increase in bribes that firms pay to get things done, expressed as the share of annual sales, is significantly associated with about a 0.9 percent decrease in productivity of firms at the 75th percentile value of regulation (high regulation). In contrast, at the 25th percentile value of regulation (low regulation), the corresponding change is very small and statistically insignificant, though it is still negative. …after we control for investment, skills and raw materials, the coefficients of the interaction term between corruption and regulation became much larger… This provides support for the hypothesis that corruption is more damaging for productivity at higher levels of regulation.

Lord Acton famously wrote that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Based on the results from the World Bank study, we can say “regulation corrupts, and added regulation corrupts additionally.”

Not very poetic, but definitely accurate.

Figure 4 from the study shows this relationship.

Seems like we need separation of business and state, not just separation of church and state.

This gives me a good excuse to recycle this video I narrated more than 10 years ago.

P.S. Five years ago, I cited a World Bank study showing that tax complexity facilitates corruption. Which means a simple and fair flat tax isn’t merely a way of achieving more prosperity, it’s also a way of draining the swamp.

The moral of the story – whether we’re looking at red tape, taxes, spending, trade, or any other issue – is that smaller government is the most effective way of reducing sleaze and corruption.

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Earlier this year, I identified Trump’s “worst ever tweet.”

I was wrong. That tweet, which displayed an astounding level of economic ignorance, is now old news.

Trump issued a tweet yesterday that is far worse because it combines bad economic theory with horrifying support for massive economic intervention. Pay special attention to the part circled in red.

Huh?!?

Since when does the President get to dictate where companies can do business?

Unfortunately, whenever he wants to.

Congress has delegated to the President massive “emergency” powers over the economy. Specifically, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is a blank check.

Here are some excerpts from a report by the Congressional Research Service.

By the twentieth century, …Congress created statutory bases permitting the President to declare a state of emergency and make use of extraordinary delegated powers. …The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is one such example of a twentieth-century delegation of emergency authority. …IEEPA grants the President extensive power to regulate a variety of economic transactions during a state of emergency. …Since 1977, Presidents have invoked IEEPA in 54 declarations of national emergency. On average, these emergencies last nearly a decade. Most emergencies have been geographically specific, targeting a specific country or government. …No President has used IEEPA to place tariffs on imported products from a specific country or on products imported to the United States in general. However, …such an action could happen. In addition, no President has used IEEPA to enact a policy that was primarily domestic in effect. Some scholars argue, however, that the interconnectedness of the global economy means it would probably be permissible to use IEEPA to take an action that was primarily domestic in effect. …Neither the NEA nor IEEPA define what constitutes a “national emergency.” …While IEEPA nominally applies only to foreign transactions, the breadth of the phrase, “any interest of any foreign country or a national thereof” has left a great deal of room for executive discretion.

You can click here for the actual legislative language of IEEPA.

You’ll see that the President has the power, for all intents and purposes, to severely disrupt or even block financial transactions between people and/or companies in the United States and people and/or companies in a designated foreign country.

And there’s no limit on the definition of “emergency.”

One could argue that an emergency declaration and a ban on the movement of money wouldn’t necessarily prohibit a company from doing business in a particular jurisdiction, but it surely would have that effect.

The economic consequences would be profound. In a negative way.

By the way, the White House Bureau Chief for the Washington Post responded to Trump’s tweet with one of his own.

He says the President, who criticizes socialism, is acting like a socialist.

He’s actually wrong, at least technically.

Socialism is government ownership and control of the means of production.

What Trump is seeking is private ownership and government control. And there’s a different word for that economic policy.

P.S. It’s a good idea for the U.S. government to have powers to respond to a genuine emergency. But it shouldn’t be the decision of one person in our separation-of-powers system. It was a bad idea when Obama was in the White House, and it’s a bad idea with Trump in the White House.

In peacetime, an emergency should require the approval of Congress. In wartime, it should require approval of the House and Senate leadership from both parties.

P.P.S. Trade laws are another example of Congress delegating too much power to the executive branch.

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I wrote two days ago about how the White House is contemplating ideas to boost the economy.

This is somewhat worrisome since “stimulus” plans oftentimes are based on Keynesian economics, which has a terrible track record. But there are policies that could help growth and I comment on some of them in this interview.

The discussion jumped from one idea to the next, so let’s makes sense of the various proposals by ranking them from best to worst.

And I’m including a few ideas that are part of the discussion in Washington, but weren’t mentioned in the interview.

  1. Eliminate Trade Taxes – Trump’s various trade taxes have made America’s economy less efficient and less productive. And, as I explained in the interview, the president has unilateral power to undo his destructive protectionist policies.
  2. Index Capital Gains – The moral argument for using regulatory authority to index capital gains for inflation is just as strong as the economic argument, as far as I’m concerned. Potential legal challenges could create uncertainly and thus mute the beneficial impact.
  3. Lower Payroll Tax Rates – While it’s always a good idea to lower the marginal tax rate on work, politicians are only considering a temporary reduction, which would greatly reduce any potential benefits.
  4. Do Nothing – As of today, based on Trump’s statements, this may be the most likely option. And since “doing something” in Washington often means more power for government, there’s a strong argument for “doing nothing.”
  5. Infrastructure – This wasn’t mentioned in the interview, but I worry that Trump will join with Democrats (and some pork-oriented Republicans) to enact a boondoggle package of transportation spending.
  6. Easy Money from the Fed – Trump is browbeating the Federal Reserve in hopes that the central bank will use its powers to artificially reduce interest rates. The president apparently thinks Keynesian monetary policy will goose the economy. In reality, intervention by the Fed usually is the cause of economic instability.

In my ideal world, I would have included spending cuts. But I limited myself to ideas that with a greater-than-zero chance of getting implemented.

I’ll close with some observations on the state of the economy.

Economists have a terrible track record of predicting twists and turns in the economy. This is why I don’t make predictions and instead focus on analyzing how various policies will affect potential long-run growth.

That being said, it’s generally safe to assume that downturns are caused by bad economic policy, especially the Federal Reserve’s boom-bust monetary policy.

Ironically, some people then blame capitalism for the damage caused by government intervention (the Great Depression, the Financial Crisis, etc).

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The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) just released its new 10-year forecast. Unsurprisingly, it shows that Trump’s reckless spending policy is accelerating America’s descent to Greek-style fiscal profligacy.

Most people are focusing on the estimates of additional red ink, but I point out in this interview that the real problem is spending.

Some folks also are highlighting the fact that CBO isn’t projecting a recession, but I don’t think that’s important for the simple fact that all economists are bad at making short-run economic predictions.

That being said, I think CBO’s long-run fiscal forecasts are worthy of close attention (unfortunately, I didn’t state this very clearly in the interview).

And what worries me is that the numbers show that government spending will be consuming an ever-larger share of the nation’s economic output.

However, it’s not time to give up.

Modest spending restraint (i.e., obeying the Golden Rule of fiscal policy) generates very good results in a remarkably short period of time.

What matters most is reducing the burden of spending. But when you address the problem of government spending (as the chart shows), you also solve the symptom of red ink.

The challenge, of course, is convincing politicians that spending should be frozen. Or, at the very least, that it should only grow at a modest pace.

We have enjoyed periods of spending restraint, including a five-year spending freeze under Obama, as well as some fiscal discipline under both Reagan and Clinton.

But if we want long-run spending discipline, we need a comprehensive spending cap, sort of like the very successful systems in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

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I’m worried. There’s a lot of talk in Washington about Trump trying to goose the economy with either Keynesian monetary policy or Keynesian fiscal policy.

It would be much better, as I discuss in this interview with Yahoo Finance, if Trump instead declared a ceasefire in the trade wars he’s started.

The interview largely revolved around trade policy and monetary policy, so I was mostly critical of Trump.

But I want to focus on the point I made midway through the discussion, when I said that Trump is undermining and offsetting some of his Administration’s good policies – most notably tax reform and regulatory easing.

As an economist, I’m frustrated by this inconsistency. It’s akin to a watching a kid get good grades in some classes and bad grades in others (and I worry his GPA is declining).

Though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. This is what the theory of “public choice” tells us to expect.

I can only imagine, though, how frustrating this must be for Republican political operatives. They’re focused on winning in 2020 and the President is sabotaging that goal with bad trade policy.

P.S. Toward the end of the interview, I pointed out that Trump should have gone through the World Trade Organization in his effort to curtail China’s protectionism. When the history of the Trump presidency is written, I suspect this will be viewed as a major mistake.

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I was interviewed yesterday about the possibility of a recession and potential policy options. You can watch the full interview here and get my two cents about economic forecasting, as well as Keynesian monetary policy.

In this segment, you can see that I’m also worried about a return of Keynesian fiscal policy.

Let’s examine the issue, starting with an analogy.

According to the Urban Dictionary, a bad penny is a “thing which is unpleasant, disreputable, or otherwise unwanted, especially one which repeatedly appears at a bad time.”

That’s a good description of Keynesian economics, which is the strange notion that the government can provide “stimulus” by borrowing money from some people, giving it to other people, and assuming that society is then more prosperous.

Keynesianism has a long track record…of failure.

Now the bad penny is showing up again.

Donald Trump already has been pushing Keynesian monetary policy, and the Washington Post reports that he is now contemplating Keynesian fiscal policy.

Several senior White House officials have begun discussing whether to push for a temporary payroll tax cut as a way to arrest an economic slowdown… The payroll tax was last cut in 2011 and 2012, to 4.2 percent, during the Obama administration as a way to encourage more consumer spending during the most recent economic downturn. …Payroll tax cuts have remained popular with Democrats largely because they are seen as targeting working Americans and the money is often immediately spent by consumers and not saved. …In the past, Democrats have strongly supported payroll tax cuts, while Republicans have been more resistant. Republicans have complained that such cuts do not help the economy.

As I wrote back in 2011, it’s possible that a temporary reduction in the payroll tax rate could have some positive impact. After all, the marginal tax rate on work would be lower.

But it wouldn’t be a large effect, and whatever benefit wouldn’t accrue for Keynesian reasons. Consumer spending is a symptom of a strong economy, not the cause of a strong economy.

Now let’s look at another nation.

Germany was actually semi-sensible during the last recession, resisting the siren song of Keynesianism.

But now politicians in Berlin are contemplating a so-called stimulus.

The Wall Street Journal opines against this type of fiscal backsliding.

The German Finance Minister said Sunday he might possibly…cobble together a Keynesian stimulus package for his recession-menaced country. …Berlin invites this stimulus pressure as the only large eurozone government responsible enough to live within its means. A balanced budget and government debt below 60% of GDP encourage the International Monetary Fund…to call for Berlin to “use” its fiscal headroom to avert a recession. …Germany’s record on delivering projects quickly is lousy, as with Berlin’s perennially delayed new airport. Too few projects would arrive in time to stimulate the new business investment proponents say would save Germany from an imminent downturn, if they stimulate business investment at all. …The worst idea, though one of the more likely, is some form of cash-for-clunkers tax handout to support the auto industry.

The right answer, as I said in the above interview, is to adopt sensible pro-market reforms.

The main goal is faster long-run growth, but such policies also help in the short run.

And the WSJ identifies some of those reforms for Germany.

Cutting taxes in Germany’s overtaxed economy would be a faster and more effective stimulus… The main stimulus Germany needs is deregulatory. In the World Bank’s latest Doing Business survey, Germany ranked behind France on time and cost of starting a business, gaining construction permits and trading across borders. Germany also lags on investor protections and ease of filing tax returns. A dishonorable mention goes to Mrs. Merkel’s Energiewende (energy transformation), which is driving up costs for businesses already struggling with trade war, taxes and regulation. …these problems don’t require €50 billion to fix, and scrapping the Energiewende would save Berlin and beleaguered businesses and households money. The bad news for everyone is that Berlin is more likely to fall for a quick-fix chimera and waste the €50 billion.

The bottom line is that Keynesian economics won’t work. Not in the United States, and not in Germany.

But politicians can’t resist this failed approach because they can pretend that their vice – buying votes by spending other people’s money – is actually a virtue.

In other words, “public choice” in action.

Let’s close by augmenting our collection of Keynesian humor. Here’s a “your mama” cartoon, based on the Keynesian notion that you can boost an economy by destroying wealth.

P.S. Here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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I’ve written over and over again about how European-sized welfare states require big tax burdens on poor and middle-income taxpayers.

Simply stated, there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government. Especially since they generally have the ability to avoid confiscatory tax burdens.

As a general rule, this means ordinary European taxpayers are suffocated with high payroll tax burdens, onerous value-added taxes on consumption, and income taxes that impose high rates on modest incomes.

But let’s also not forget that politicians in Europe also pillage motorists.

The Tax Foundation recently released a survey showing gas taxes in various European nations.

…the European Union requires EU countries to levy a minimum excise duty of €0.36 per liter (US $1.61 per gallon) on gas. …The Netherlands has the highest gas tax in the European Union, at €0.79 per liter ($3.53 per gallon). …All EU countries also levy a value-added tax (VAT) on gas and diesel.

Wow, this is like the perfect storm of bad European policy, with tax harmonization (minimum-tax requirement) and a version of double taxation (motorist pay both VAT and gas tax when they fill up).

No wonder French motorists launched a yellow vest protest after Macron proposed another tax hike.

Here’s the map, which should have shown the prices in dollars. Just keep in mind that the average European pays almost $2.50 in tax on every gallon of gas.

I’ll close by noting that Europeans don’t get better roads for all that money.

For all the sturm and drang about supposed problems with infrastructure in the United States, it’s worth noting that our gas taxes are much lower and we consistently get above-average scores in various infrastructure rankings.

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Time to augment our growing collection of satire about the twin horrors of socialism and communism.

Today, we’ll concentrate on the latter form of totalitarianism and mock Marxism.

The New York Times has a bizarre history of going out of its way to praise communism, often for very weird reasons.

So this bit of satire from Babylon Bee seems like it could be real.

The New York Times…prais[ed] the Soviet Union for its unprecedented gender equality at its brutal prison camps. …the Soviets provided forced labor opportunities for people of all races, genders, and orientations, pointing out that while the United States may have won the Cold War and the Space Race, the USSR won the victories that counted: imprisoning all people equally. “They even employed female guards, LGBTQ guards, and guards of color,” the piece read. “From prison guards to prisoners, the Soviets were years and years ahead of the U.S. when it came to equality. …Many people on social media pointed out that gender equality wasn’t really something to be praised when it comes to a totalitarian regime. But the Times simply doubled down, publishing pieces that praised the Soviet Union for.. The wage gap: everybody made almost no money equally…Environmental policy: constant blackouts mean smaller carbon footprint.

The last sentence of that excerpt is especially funny since it’s true.

Folks on the left have actually lauded impoverished nations because they don’t produce and consume as much.

Now let’s look at the communist version of a famous board game.

For what it’s worth, the communist version of the game isn’t quite as elaborate as the Bernie version.

Now let’s return to Babylon Bee for some additional mockery.

A study performed by researchers at Harvard University found a strong link between supporting the idea of communism and never once having even briefly opened a history book, sources confirmed Tuesday. …“We found that of the people who advocate communism today, over 97% slept all the way through each of their history classes in elementary school, high school, and college,” head researcher Todd Devlin said in a statement accompanying the release of the study’s findings. …The study also found that the majority of modern communists who do happen across a stray piece of information showing the horrors and atrocities of real-life communism are able to quickly rationalize the historical facts away by labeling those examples “not real communism.”

Reminds me of this cartoon about AOC.

Speaking of the never-ending rationalization that communist failures weren’t “real communism,” let’s close today’s column with this link sent by a reader.

There’s a similar lather-rinse-repeat cycle among apologists for socialism.

But while it’s amusing to mock socialism and communism, let’s never forget the horrific suffering and death that these evil ideologies have produced.

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I’ve shared some amazing stories about leftist hypocrisy over the years.

But if there was a first prize for statist hypocrisy (especially if timing is part of the contest), then the winner might be Dan McCready, a wannabe Congressman from North Carolina.

The Daily Caller has some of the jaw-dropping details.

McCready…is running against Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop in the Sept. 10 special election for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District…during a candidate forum the Fayetteville NAACP hosted “…politicians like state Sen. Bishop,” McCready said at the event,… “They don’t believe in public schools. They do anything they can to conduct a war on schools.” …Despite McCready’s accusations that his political opponents lack faith in public schools, he has enrolled some of his own four children, ages 2 to 8, in a Charlotte-based private school with a tuition rate close to $18,000 per student.

Then again, maybe McCready’s hypocrisy isn’t so unusual. Rich politicians in Washington, including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, routinely send their kids to private school while fighting to deny school choice for others.

Why?

To be fair, it’s not that they don’t like kids from poor families. The problem is that they put the interests of teacher unions ahead of the interests of those kids. Public Choice 101.

That’s despicable.

And what’s equally despicable is that the NAACP, where McCready was speaking, also opposes school choice – even though minority children suffer the most because of the failed government school monopoly.

Why?

Because they’re also bought off by the teacher unions.

I’ll close by directing your attention to this column about the empirical evidence for school choice.

P.S. It’s also uplifting to see very successful school choice systems operate in nations such as CanadaSwedenChile, and the Netherlands. And India doesn’t have school choice, but it’s a remarkable example of how private schools are the only good option for poor families that want upward mobility.

P.P.S. The Washington Post provides an example of honest and decent leftism, having editorialized in favor of poor children over teacher unions.

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When I talked to CNBC on Wednesday, I was very critical of Trump and other Republicans for promoting protectionism, Keynesian monetary policy, and wasteful spending.

Yes, I give Trump and the GOP credit for improvements in regulatory policy and tax policy. And I used to think that the pro-growth effect of those reforms was enough to balance out the anti-growth effects of the bad policies.

But I now think the net effect of the Trump presidency is to expand the overall burden of government.

In early July, my report card on Trump’s economic policy (based on the five key indices in Economic Freedom of the World) had him slightly above a C average.

Now, as you can see, he’s slightly below. And since Republicans in Congress are largely going along with Trump’s policies, they also deserve blame.

I realize that people also care about other matters, such as social issues, the judiciary, and foreign policy, so it’s not my goal to influence how anyone votes.

But I do want people to understand that economic policy matters. And for readers who like Trump (or at least think he’s a less-worse alternative than Sanders, Harris, Warren, etc), be forewarned that Trump’s big-government policies are increasing the probability of having Democrats win in 2020.

The lesson Republicans should have learned from Ronald Reagan is that good policy is good politics (my Fourth Theorem of Government).

George H.W. Bush didn’t learn that lesson. George W. Bush didn’t learn that lesson. And now Trump is demonstrating that he didn’t learn that lesson.

P.S. Some of us knew ahead of time to expect bad policy from Trump.

P.P.S. Since my 2016 election prediction was wrong, feel free to ignore my political prognosticating.

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It’s difficult to be optimistic about some parts of the world.

When I look at Greece and Italy, for instance, I can’t help but think that economic renaissance is very unlikely, in part because of demographics, but even more so because voters have been conditioned to think that they have a right to live off the government.

This dependency mindset shows that societal capital has eroded, and it’s why I fear those nations have passed a tipping point.

Another example is Argentina. The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page is very discouraged that the Peronists may return to power in that country.

Does Argentina have a death wish? That’s the question going around after Peronist Alberto Fernández and his running mate, former President Cristina Kirchner, took first place in Sunday’s presidential “primaries” with 48% of the vote. President Mauricio Macri finished 16 points behind… Clearly investors don’t want to hang around if Mr. Fernández and Mrs. Kirchner—whose eight years as president (2007-2015) were marked by leftwing populism and corruption—get to power. Mr. Macri’s unexpectedly poor showing sent the peso and equities down and default risk for Argentine bonds up.

So why would Argentinians vote for statism and economic collapse, especially since there’s so much evidence that Peronists have done immense damage to the country’s economy?

In part, because they were choosing between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The supposed center-right incumbent, Mauricio Macri, governed as a statist.

And he’s been doubling down on bad policy in hopes of staying in office.

…he fought back by promising to raise the minimum wage for the second time this year, freeze the price of gasoline for 90 days, increase welfare payments in September and October and give a bonus to federal bureaucrats, police and the military. Perhaps this half-baked populism will move voters, but it augurs poorly for the Argentine future. …Mr. Macri…sought to avoid confrontation. He ought to have set about shrinking the state and its subsidies. Instead he maintained lavish government spending. The kinder, gentler president has been unwilling to tell Argentines in stark terms what they are up against. …Argentine debt has shot up on Mr. Macri’s watch and as a percentage of GDP it is forecast to reach 100% this year. Deficit spending has put pressure on the central bank to print money, and there has been no effort to contain inflation expectations.

Ugh, Macri seems even worse than some of America’s big-government Republicans.

But there is a sliver of good news. If nothing else, Argentina serves as an example of why so-called “democratic socialism” is so misguided.

In some analysis for investors, Michael Cembalest of J.P. Morgan looked around the world for insights and evidence about the ideology championed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (h/t: James Pethokoukis).

He starts off by identifying the key criteria of democratic socialism.

This sounds like Elizabeth Warren’s platform, or perhaps the Green New Deal, so I think this is an accurate list.

Mr. Cembalest points out, though, that the Nordic nations don’t qualify as being socialist of any kind.

Some point to Nordic countries as democratic socialism in action, but…while Nordic countries have higher taxes and greater redistribution of wealth, Nordics are just as business-friendly as the US if not more so. Examples include greater business freedoms, freer trade, …and less of an impact on competition from state control over the economy. …while Nordics raise more taxes than the US, the gap usually results from regressive VAT/consumption taxes and Social Security taxes rather than from progressive income taxes. The bottom line: copy the Nordic model if you like, but understand that it entails a lot of capitalism and pro-business policies, a lot of taxation on middle class spending and wages, minimal reliance on corporate taxation and plenty of co-pays and deductibles in its healthcare system.

He’s right. The Nordic nations get relatively high marks for economic liberty in all areas other than fiscal policy. They’re no more socialist than the United States.

He did find a country, however, that is a very close match for democratic socialism.

I couldn’t find any country that ticked all…democratic socialist boxes, but I did find one that came close: Argentina.

Seems to me that Argentina does tick all the boxes. But since he doesn’t delve into methodology, I’m not sure of his definitions.

In any event, he looks at Argentina’s relative performance over a long period of time, which is the right approach to see if a country is converging or diverging.

There are two ways to look at Argentina’s decline relative to the rest of the world since the early 1900’s. The first shows the ratio of real per capita GDP in 2018 vs the same measure in 1913. Argentina’s ratio barely rose, and is the lowest ratio of all countries for which data is available for both years.

Here’s the relevant chart, and you can see that Argentina has the worst performance over the past 100 years.

He also slices the data using another approach.

The next method illustrates how Argentina used to be among the richest nations in the world, and how far it has fallen. The x axis shows percentile of per capita GDP in 1913, while the y axis shows the same measure in 2018. All countries below the diagonal line have seen their rankings fall, while those above the line have seen their rankings improve. The farther the distance from the diagonal line, the more things have changed; Argentina’s decline from the 83rd percentile in 1913 to the 40th in 2018 is the largest decline on the chart.

And here’s the accompanying chart.

Fast growing nations are above the line, so it’s hardly a surprise to see that the Asian Tigers of Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore have done well.

And I’m also not surprised to see that South Africa is almost as bad as Argentina.

At some point, I’ll have to re-crunch the numbers showing the post-WWII era. I imagine that data also will show a very strong relationship between national prosperity and economic liberty.

P.S. One external reason for Argentina’s awful performance is that it keeps getting rewarded for bad policy with IMF bailouts.

P.P.S. Greece is another country that should be a warning sign about what happens with democratic socialism.

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A week ago, I wrote about the turmoil in Hong Kong and pointed out that a crackdown would be bad for China’s already-faltering economy.

I had a chance to again address the issue yesterday.

What made this interview different is that it included a discussion of what Trump should do.

My expertise is economics rather than diplomacy, but I speculated that public warnings and/or threats by Trump might backfire.

The Wall Street Journal opined today on this issue and they want Trump to be aggressive. Here are some excerpts.

The stakes are rising in Hong Kong, as clashes between pro-democracy protesters and the local government backed by China are escalating. The damage could be global if President Xi Jinping orders a bloody crackdown, and President Trump should be warning the Chinese President not to do it. …The protests began in June when the Legislative Council tried to ram through a bill that would allow Beijing to extradite anyone in Hong Kong to the mainland. Amid overwhelming public opposition, Ms. Lam has declared the legislation “dead” but refused to withdraw it. Police have responded to the protests with hundreds of arrests and increasing brutality. Hong Kong’s cause should be the free world’s… An invasion of Hong Kong would violate China’s treaty with Britain and poison U.S.-Chinese relations.

I agree that the Trump Administration should seek to deter intervention, but I think any warnings – at least at this point – should be conveyed behind the scenes.

In my fantasy world, Trump would strike a deal with China, and agree to drop his misguided trade taxes in exchange for China not messing with Hong Kong.

Sadly, my fantasies rarely become reality.

So I’ll close with a practical point. I mentioned in the interview that the people of Hong Kong are much richer than the people of China. Here’s the evidence, based on the Maddison database, as well as the numbers from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

My takeaway from these numbers, as I suggest in the title, is that China should send economists to Hong Kong rather than troops. They could learn important lessons about the benefits of free markets and limited government.

Heck, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to send American economists as well. Indeed, since it gets the top score from Economic Freedom of the World, the entire world can learn from Hong Kong’s spectacular success.

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I religiously read just about everything from Thomas Sowell, John Stossel, Walter Williams, Tim Carney, and other libertarian-minded experts

But I also make a point to regularly read non-libertarians such as Desmond Lachman, Will Wilkinson, Dalibor Rohac, and Noah Smith even though I sometimes – or even often – disagree with their policy prescriptions.

What matters is that they generally have intelligent and thoughtful observations on issues that I care about.

But they’re not necessarily accurate. For instance, Noah Smith recently wrote an interesting column for Bloomberg about whether people are poor because of their own behavior or because of external factors.

Here are the passages that caught my attention.

…there is at least one rich country where people…work hard, avoid risky, self-destructive behavior and make wise life choices. That country is Japan. And it still has plenty of poverty. …Given all of this good behavior, conservatives might expect that Japan’s poverty rate would be very low. But the opposite is true; Japan has a relatively high number of poor people for an advanced country. Defined by the percentage of the population earning less than half of the median national income, Japan’s poverty rate is more than 15% — a little lower than the U.S., but considerably higher than countries such as Germany, Canada or Australia… This suggests that there is something very wrong with the conservative theory of poverty.

Fortunately, I don’t need to explain what’s wrong with Smith’s analysis.

Writing for National Review, Kevin Williamson has already pointed out his errors.

Smith here relies on a useless measure of “relative” poverty, the share of the population earning less than half of the median income. You can see the limitations of that approach: A uniformly poor society in which 99 percent of the people live on 50 cents a day and 1 percent live on 49 cents a day would have a poverty rate of 0.00; a rich society with incomes that are rising across-the-board but are rising much more quickly for the top two-thirds would have a rising poverty rate… It would be far better to consider poverty in absolute terms, but our progressive friends are strangely resistant to that.

It is indeed strange that so many folks on the left have decided to use an artificial and misleading definition of poverty. One that depends on the distribution of income rather than any specific measure of poverty.

Which is insanely dishonest. It means that everyone’s income could double and the supposed rate of poverty would stay the same.

Or a country could execute all the rich people and the alleged rate of poverty would decline.

No wonder the practitioners of this approach often produce absurd data, such as the OECD’s assertion that there’s more poverty in the United States than in basket case economies such as Greece and Italy.

Shame on Noah Smith. He should know better.

I’ll continue to read his work, so he’s not being kicked out of my club of non-libertarian writers.

But I will add him to list of people and groups who are guilty of peddling fake poverty data. These “poverty hucksters” include the OECD, of course, and also the United Nations, the New York Times, the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, the Obama Administration, and the European Commission.

P.S. A “poverty pimp,” by contrast, is someone who personally profits from administering the welfare state.

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Spending caps are the most effective way of fulfilling my Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

And we have good evidence for this approach, as I explain in this FreedomWorks discussion.

I also discuss tax competition in the interview, as well as other topics. You can watch the entire discussion by clicking here.

But I’m sharing the part about spending caps because it fits perfectly with some new research from Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon of the Mercatus Center.

They point out that America faces a grim fiscal future, but suggest that fiscal rules may be part of the solution.

…the federal budget process as it exists today has proven inadequate…it is a great way to enable politicians to do what they want to do (cater to interest groups) while avoiding what they don’t want to do (living within their means). …The negative consequence emerging from this chaos and the resulting failure to follow budget rules is an unremitting expansion of the size and scope of government… With countries around the world experiencing growing debt-to-GDP ratios, resultant stagnation in economic growth, and, in extreme cases, default on debts, academics have been paying an increasing amount of attention to the potential of rules toward restraining unsustainable deficit spending. …The good news is that the evidence suggests that these fiscal rules are broadly effective at restraining deficit spending. …The bad news is that not all fiscal rules are effective in restraining government profligacy and curtailing debt growth.

The authors are right. Some fiscal rules don’t work very well.

As I stated in the interview, balanced budget requirements tend to be ineffective.

Spending caps, by contrast, have a decent track record.

The Mercatus study looks at Hong Kong.

Hong Kong…might actually represent the gold standard of good fiscal policy. …Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, Mr. John Tsang, explained, “Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline. . . . It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.” …in Hong Kong it’s actually a constitutional requirement: Article 107 requires that the government should strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficit, and more importantly, make sure government spending doesn’t grow faster than the growth of the economy. …Hong Kong’s spending-to-GDP ratio has fluctuated between 14 and 20 percent since the 1990s, its debt as a share of GDP is zero, social welfare spending remains steady at less than 3 percent of GDP.

Amen.

I’ve also praised Hong Kong’s fiscal policy.

Now let’s look at what the authors wrote about Switzerland.

Swiss politicians are not allowed to increase spending faster than average revenue growth over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance), which confines spending growth to a rate no higher than the rate of inflation plus population growth. The Swiss debt brake rule is significant in that it appeals to economists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Advocates for fiscal restraint support this rule because it is effectively a spending cap, while social democrats support the rule as it allows for deficit spending during recessionary periods. …There’s no arguing with the results: Annual spending growth fell from an average of 4.3 percent to 2.5 percent since the rule was implemented. Also, in 10 out of the past 14 years, Switzerland has had budget surpluses, while deficits have remained rare and small… At the same time, the Swiss debt-to-GDP ratio has fallen from almost 60 percent in 2003 to around 42 percent in 2017.

Once again, I say amen.

Switzerland’s spending cap is a big success.

Here’s Figure 1 from the study, which shows a big drop in Swiss government debt. I’ve augmented the chart with OECD data to focus on something even more important – which is that the burden of spending (which started very low by European standards) has declined since the debt brake was implemented.

Last but not least, let’s look at the Danish example.

In 2014 Denmark implemented The Budget Act to ensure more efficient management of public expenditures. The act is aimed at ensuring a balance or surplus on the general government balance sheet, as well as appropriate expenditure management at all levels of government. In practice, the rule sets a limit of 0.5 percent of GDP on the structural budget deficit. Policymakers decided that managing fiscal policy on the basis of a balanced structural budget would lead to an appropriate fiscal position in the long term. They also designed the system to take discretion out of their own hands by making the cuts automatic. In addition to structural deficit rules, the Budget Act introduces four-year rolling expenditure ceilings. These ceilings set legally binding limits for spending at all levels of government and for each program. If one program spends under its cap, any money not spent cannot be reallocated to another program.

I guess this is time for a triple-amen.

Here’s Figure 2 from the study, which I’ve also augmented to highlight the most important success of Denmark’s policy of spending restraint.

The economic case for spending caps is ironclad.

The problem is that it’s an uphill climb from a political perspective.

Politicians prefer legislative spending caps. After all (as we saw in 2013, 2015, 2018, and this year), those can be evaded with a simple majority, so long as there’s a profligate president who approves higher spending levels.

And those caps have never applied to entitlements, which are the part of the budget that eventually will bankrupt the nation.

So why would public choice-motivated lawmakers actually allow a serious and comprehensive spending cap to become part of the Constitution?

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My collection of liberals who are honest on the issue of gun control is expanding.

  • In 2012, I shared some important observations from Jeffrey Goldberg, a left-leaning writer for The Atlantic. In his column, he basically admitted his side was wrong about gun control.
  • Then, in 2013, I wrote about a column by Justin Cronin in the New York Times. He self-identified as a liberal, but explained how real-world events have led him to become a supporter of private gun ownership.
  • In 2015, I shared a column by Jamelle Bouie in Slate, who addressed the left’s fixation on trying to ban so-called assault weapons and explains that such policies are meaningless.
  • Most recently, in 2017, Leah Libresco wrote in the Washington Post that advocates of gun control are driven by emotion rather empirical research and evidence.

Now we have another addition to the list.

Alex Kingsbury of the New York Times acknowledges that politicians who want to ban so-called assault weapons are engaging in a futile exercise.

There are currently around 15 million military-style rifles in civilian hands in the United States. …Acknowledging the grim reality that we will live among these guns indefinitely is a necessary first step…calling for military-style rifles bans — as I have done for years — may be making other lifesaving gun laws harder to pass. …Short of forced confiscation or a major cultural shift, our great-great-great-grandchildren will live side-by-side with the guns we have today and make tomorrow. …For context: In 2016 alone, more than one million military-style weapons were added to America’s existing civilian arsenal… America’s gun problem is far larger than military-style weapons, the mass killer’s rifle of choice. There are hundreds of millions of handguns in the country… The guns…are here to stay.

Interestingly, he acknowledges that civil disobedience is widespread, which I wrote about last month.

Not only is confiscation politically untenable — the compliance rates of gun owners when bans are passed are laughably low. The distribution of these weapons across society makes even their prohibition nearly impossible. In 1996, Australia launched a mandatory gun buyback of 650,000 military-style weapons. While gun ownership per capita in the country declined by more than 20 percent, today Australians own more guns than they did before the buyback.

Though he seems puzzled by the fact that more gun ownership is associated with less crime.

The only way to cut the half-life of guns is to convince Americans that they’re safer without them. Yet with violent crime at historic lows and Americans still buying up semiautomatic rifles by the bushel.

Maybe Mr. Kingsbury belongs in the Fox Butterfield club as well as the honest liberals club?

Since we’re writing about the left and guns, let’s look at a Washington Times report about an unusual response to a gun ban in Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder’s newly enacted “assault weapons” ban is meeting with stiff resistance from its “gun-toting hippies,” staunch liberals who also happen to be devoted firearms owners. Only 342 “assault weapons,” or semiautomatic rifles, were certified by Boulder police before the Dec. 31 deadline, meaning there could be thousands of residents in the scenic university town of 107,000 in violation of the sweeping gun-control ordinance. …Current owners were given until the end of the year to choose one of two options: Get rid of their semiautomatics by moving them out of town, disabling them, or turning them over to police — or apply for a certificate with the Boulder Police Department… Judging by the numbers, however, most Boulder firearms owners have chosen to do none of the above, albeit quietly. …“The firearms community in Boulder — they may be Democrats but they love their firearms,” said Ms. Hollywood, herself a former Boulder resident.

Kudos to these citizens.

By the way, I also want to share this blurb from the story.

City Attorney Tom Carr has acknowledged that enforcing the ordinance will be a challenge, telling the Boulder Daily Camera that “there’s no circumstance where we go door-to-door and ask people if they’ve violated the law.”

Reminds me of the great video from Reason about the utter impracticality of actually trying to impose a gun ban.

Let’s close with some excerpts from a story in the Washington Free-Beacon.

They may not like Trump & McConnell but they love Smith & Wesson. …members of the Liberal Gun Club…traveled around central Florida shooting sporting clays, steel challenge matches, and even a few machineguns while planning how they’ll expand the club and use it to lobby against new gun bans… They were welcoming and friendly. They’re definitely liberals and they’re definitely gun lovers. …Pattie Hall, a member from rural Kentucky… “I wanted to be able to find other people who think like I do… I’m a very unusual shooter in the sense that you don’t find many liberals, many lesbians, or many vegetarians, and I’m all of those, but I still like guns.” …Pattie, Sean, and Keith all said they’d faced more backlash from the average liberal who found out they owned guns than from gun owners who found out they were liberals. In Pattie’s case, she said gun owners tended to be far more tolerant of her being gay than liberals are of her being a gun owner. …the club is hoping to show liberal gun owners are out there, they don’t want their guns taken away, and there are more of them than you probably think.

I guess all of these people should be honorary members of the honest liberals club.

Sadly, they’re presumably just a tiny minority of folks on the left.

Though hopefully they can act as missionaries and gain more converts.

You would think, for instance, that decent people on the left would look at the unsavory history of gun control – especially the way it was used to deny civil rights to minorities – and put individual rights ahead of government power.

Or that they would look at how various tyrants have disarmed their populations before launching genocides, and understand the value of an armed citizenry.

Heck, maybe they can look at the inverse relationship between crime and gun ownership over the past few decades and draw the logical conclusion.

Though if they were wise enough to recognize all these points, they’d presumably be libertarians!

Addendum: Welcome Instapundit readers. Thanks, Glenn.

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Having been inspired by Ronald Reagan’s libertarian-ish message (and track record), I’ve always been suspicious of alternative forms of conservatism for the simple reason that they always seem to mean bigger government.

To be fair, proponents of all these approaches always paid homage to the role of markets, so we’re not talking about Bernie Sanders-type nuttiness.

But I don’t want to travel in the wrong direction, even if only at 10 miles-per-hour rather than 90 miles-per-hour.

Now there’s a new alternative to Reaganism called “national conservatism.” It’s loosely defined, as you can see by reports from both left-leaning outlets (New York, New Republic) and right-leaning outlets (Townhall, Daily Signal).

There are parts of this new movement that are appealing, at least if I’m reading them correctly. Proponents are appropriately skeptical of global governance, though maybe not for the reasons that arouse my antipathy. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend in this battle.

They also don’t seem very fond of nation building, which also pleases me. And I also am somewhat sympathetic to their arguments about national unity – assuming it’s based on the proper definition of patriotism.

But their economic views, at best, are worrisome. And, as George Will opines, they’re sometimes awful.

…“national conservatives”…advocate unprecedented expansion of government to purge America of excessive respect for market forces and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. …The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass advocates “industrial policy” — what other socialists call “economic planning”… He especially means subsidizing manufacturing..he admits that as government, i.e., politics, permeates the economy on manufacturing’s behalf, “regulatory capture,” other forms of corruption and “market distortions will emerge.” Emerge? Using government to create market distortions is national conservatism’s agenda. …Their agenda is much more ambitious than President Richard M. Nixon’s 1971 imposition of wage and price controls, which were temporary fiascos. Their agenda is even more ambitious than the New Deal’s cartelization of industries, which had the temporary (and unachieved) purpose of curing unemployment. What national conservatives propose is government fine-tuning the economy’s composition and making sure resources are “well” distributed, as the government (i.e., the political class) decides, forever. …Although the national conservatives’ anti-capitalism purports to be populist, it would further empower the administrative state’s faux aristocracy of administrators who would decide which communities and economic sectors should receive “well”-allocated resources. Furthermore, national conservatism is paternalistic populism. This might seem oxymoronic, but so did “Elizabeth Warren conservatives” until national conservatives emerged as such.

Since Nixon and FDR were two of America’s worst presidents, Will is drawing a very harsh comparison.

To give the other side, here are excerpts from a New York Times column by Oren Cass.

…a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy. Genuine prosperity depends upon people working as productive contributors to their society, through which they can achieve self-sufficiency, support their families, participate in their communities, and raise children prepared to do the same.

None of this sounds bad.

Heck, it sounds good. I’m in favor of strong families and strong communities.

But what does this rhetoric mean? Here’s where I start to worry.

Crucially, while a labor market left alone will seek an efficient equilibrium, economic theory never promises that the equilibrium will be a socially desirable, inclusive one. A genuine conservatism values markets as powerful mechanisms that foster choice, promote competition and deliver growth, but always in service to the larger end of a cohesive society in which people can thrive. …In some cases, …conservatives will head in new directions or even reverse course. …an insistence that workers throughout the labor market share in productivity growth……longstanding hostility toward organized labor will give way to an emphasis on reform. …new forms of organizing through which workers can support one another, engage with management and contribute to civil society should be a conservative priority.

And my worry turns to unfettered angst when I read some of the specific ideas that Cass mentions.

…a wage subsidy delivered directly into each low-wage paycheck…skepticism of unfettered international trade…legislation that would require the Federal Reserve to close the trade deficit by taxing foreign purchases of American assets.

To put it mildly, more redistribution, more protectionism, and taxes on investment is not a Reaganite agenda.

I’ll close with a political observation. Defenders of national conservatism have told me that the Reagan message is old and stale. It supposedly doesn’t apply to new problems in a new era.

Yet non-conservative Republicans lost twice to Obama while a hypothetical poll in 2013 showed Reagan would trounce Obama.

Some national conservatives point to Trump’s victory as an alternative, but I think that had more to do with Hillary Clinton. In any event, I very much doubt Trumpism is a long-term model for political success. Or economic success.

Maybe the real lesson is that good policy is good politics?

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Back in 2012, I wrote that the left’s hostility to tax competition had reached such a crazy level that some of them were even urging military action against low-tax jurisdictions.

Though I was amused to see that this warmongering focused on tiny jurisdictions such as Monaco and the Cayman Islands rather than the well-armed Swiss.

But maybe the militaristic statists are getting braver.

Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard, openly suggests in a column for Foreign Policy that it may be necessary to invade Brazil in the name of global warming.

…how far would you go to prevent irreversible environmental damage? In particular, do states have the right—or even the obligation—to intervene in a foreign country in order to prevent it from causing irreversible and possibly catastrophic harm to the environment? …I raise this issue in light of the news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is accelerating development of the Amazon rainforest… What should (or must) the international community do to prevent a misguided Brazilian president (or political leaders in other countries) from taking actions that could harm all of us?

In the article, Professor Walt mentions sanctions and protectionism as potential tools.

But he also thinks a military option should be on the table.

…international law authorizes countries to go to war for self-defense or when the Security Council authorizes military action. It’s even legal to attack another country’s territory preemptively, provided there is a well-founded basis…destroying the Amazon rainforest presents a clear and obvious threat to many other countries… I don’t mean to single out Brazil: It would be an equally radical step to threaten the United States or China if they refused to stop emitting so many greenhouse gases. …It might seem far-fetched to imagine states threatening military action to prevent this today, but it becomes more likely if worst-case estimates of our climate future turn out to be correct.

Wow.

Because I’m not a scientist, I generally don’t write about global warming. Or climate change, or climate crisis, or whatever it’s now being called.

But I am very skeptical of people who make absurd and hysterical arguments (climate change will cause genocide, it will cause AIDS, it is supported by racists, it means Cuba is better than the USA, it causes terrorism, it caused Brexit, etc) in order to advance an agenda that would dramatically expand the burden of government.

Some of them are simply scammers, using the issue to line their pockets with government grants.

But some of them are true believers who behave in very weird ways (don’t bathe, sterilize themselves, hand-cranked vibrators, choose death, etc).

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At the risk of over-simplifying, the difference between “supply-side economics” and “demand-side economics” is that the former is based on microeconomics (incentives, price theory) while the latter is based on macroeconomics (aggregate demand, Keynesianism).

When discussing the incentive-driven supply-side approach, I often focus on two key points.

  • Marginal tax rates matter more than average tax rates because the incentive to earn additional income (rather than enjoying leisure) is determined by whether the government grabs a small, medium, or large share of any extra earnings.
  • Some taxpayers such as investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners are especially sensitive to changes in marginal tax rates because they have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Today, let’s review some new research from Spain’s central bank confirms these supply-side insights.

Here’s what the authors investigated.

The impact of personal income taxes on the economic decisions of individuals is a key empirical question with important implications for the optimal design of tax policy. …the modern public finance literature has devoted significant efforts to study behavioral responses to changes in taxes on reported taxable income… Most of this work focuses on the elasticity of taxable income (ETI), which captures a broad set of real and reporting behavioral responses to taxation. Indeed, reported taxable income reflects not only individuals’ decisions on hours worked, but also work effort and career choices as well as the results of investment and entrepreneurship activities. Besides these real responses, the ETI also captures tax evasion and avoidance decisions of individuals to reduce their tax bill.

By the way, “elasticity” is econ-speak for sensitivity. In other words, if there’s high elasticity, it means taxpayers are very responsive to a change in tax rates.

Anyhow, here’s how authors designed their study.

In this paper, we estimate the elasticity of taxable income in Spain, an interesting country to study because during the last two decades it has implemented several major personal income tax reforms… In the empirical analysis, we use an administrative panel dataset of income tax returns… We calculate the MTR as a weighted average of the MTR applicable to each income source (labor, financial capital, real-estate capital, business income and capital gains).

You can see in Figure 1 that the 2003 reform was good for taxpayers and the 2012 reform was bad for taxpayers.

If nothing else, though, these changes created the opportunity for scholars to measure how taxpayers respond.

And here are the results.

We obtain estimates of the ETI around 0.35 using the Gruberand Saez (2002) estimation method, 0.54 using Kleven and Schultz (2014)’s method and 0.64 using Weber (2014)’s method. …In addition to the average estimates of the ETI, we analyze heterogeneous responses across groups of taxpayers and sources of income. …As expected, stronger responses are documented for groups of taxpayers with higher ability to respond. In particular, self-employed taxpayers have a higher ETI than wage employees, while real-estate capital and business income respond more strongly than labor income. …we find large responses on the tax deductions margin, especially private pension contributions.

In other words, taxpayers do respond to changes in tax policy.

And some taxpayers are very sensitive (high elasticity) to those changes.

Here’s Table 6 from the study. Much of it will be incomprehensible if you’re not familiar with econometrics. But all that matters is that I circled (in red) the measures of how elasticities vary based on the type of income (larger numbers mean more sensitive).

I’ll close with a very relevant observation about American fiscal policy.

Currently, upper-income taxpayers finance the vast majority of America’s medium-sized welfare state.

But what if the United States had a large-sized welfare state, like the ones that burden many European nations?

If you review the data, those large-sized welfare states are financed with stifling tax burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers. Politicians in Europe learned that they couldn’t squeeze enough money out of the rich (in large part because of high elasticities).

Indeed, I wrote early this year about how taxes are confiscating the lion’s share of the income earned by ordinary workers in Spain.

And if we adopt the expanded welfare state envisioned by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Kamala Harris, the same thing will happen to American workers.

P.S. I admire how Spanish taxpayers have figured out ways of escaping the tax net.

P.P.S. There’s also evidence about the impact of Spain’s corporate tax.

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For libertarians, there aren’t many good role models in the world. There are a few small jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands that are worth highlighting because of strong rule of law and good fiscal policy. There are also a few medium-sized nations that are – by modern standards – very market-oriented, such as Switzerland, Singapore, and New Zealand.

But Hong Kong generally gets top rankings for economic liberty. Which helps to explain why I’m so worried about a potential crackdown by China.

As I noted in the interview, intervention by Chinese security would not be good news for Hong Kong.

But it also would be bad news for China’s economy. Especially since it already is dealing with the adverse consequences of both internal statism and external protectionism.

Indeed, the only reason I’m not totally pessimistic is that the power elite in China doubtlessly would experience a big loss in personal wealth if there is a crackdown.

That being said, I can’t imagine President Xi will allow China’s implicit control over Hong Kong to diminish. So I’m reluctant to make any prediction.

But I very much hope that Hong Kong will emerge unscathed, in part because I don’t want to lose a very good example of the link between economic liberty and national prosperity.

Marian Tupy, writing for CapX, explains that Hong Kong is a great role model.

In 1950, …compared to the advanced countries of the West, Hong Kong was still a relative backwater. …the average resident of the colony earned 35 per cent and 25 per cent compared to British and American citizens respectively. Today, average income in Hong Kong is 37 per cent and 3 per cent higher than that in the United Kingdom and America. …Unlike some British ex-colonies and the United Kingdom itself, Hong Kong never experimented with socialism. Historically, the government played only a minor role in the economy… The territory kept taxes flat and low… The territory followed a policy of unilateral trade liberalisation, which is to say that the colony allowed other countries to export to Hong Kong tariff-free, regardless of whether other countries reciprocated or not. …In 1755, the great Scottish economist Adam Smith…wrote, “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice…” Hong Kong prospered because it followed Smith’s recommendations.

Here’s his chart showing how Hong Kong has surpassed both the United Kingdom and United States in terms of per-capita economic output.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Jairaj Devadiga explains a key factor in Hong Kong’s success.

Sir John Cowperthwaite was Hong Kong’s financial secretary from 1961-71 and is widely credited for the prosperity Hong Kong enjoys today. An ardent free-marketeer, Cowperthwaite believed that government should not try to manage the economy. One salient feature of Cowperthwaite’s policies: His administration didn’t collect any economic data during his tenure. Not even gross domestic product was calculated. When the American economist Milton Friedman asked why, Cowperthwaite replied that once the data were made available, officials would invariably use them to make the case for government intervention in the economy. …Without data, busybody bureaucrats had no way of justifying interference in the economy. In Cowperthwaite’s Hong Kong, the government did only the bare minimum necessary, such as maintaining law and order… The rest was left to the private sector. …When asked what poor countries should do to emulate Hong Kong’s success, he replied, “They should abolish the office of national statistics.”

Amen.

When you give data to politicians and bureaucrats, they generally find something they don’t like and then can’t resist the temptation to intervene.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the factors that enabled Hong Kong’s prosperity, let’s consider what may happen if there’s a crackdown by China.

Professor Tyler Cowen shares a pessimistic assessment in his Bloomberg column.

Hong Kong has been a kind of bellwether for the state of freedom in the wider world. …By 1980, Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” series was on television, portraying Hong Kong as a free economy experiencing huge gains in living standards. The skyline was impressive, and you could get all the necessary permits to start a business in Hong Kong in just a few days. The territory showed how Friedman’s theories worked in the real world. Hong Kong stood as a symbol of a new age of freer markets and growing globalization. …Hong Kong still ranks near or at the top of several indices of economic freedom. But…[n]ot only is there the specter of Chinese intervention, but there is also a broader understanding that the rules of the game can change at any time… Meanwhile, many Hong Kong residents know their behavior is being monitored and graded, and they know the role of the Chinese government will only grow. …Freedom is not merely the ability to buy and sell goods at minimum regulation and a low tax rate, variables that are readily picked up by economic freedom indices. Freedom is also about the…legitimacy and durability of their political institutions. …Circa 2019, Hong Kong is a study in the creeping power and increasing sophistication of autocracy. While it is possible there could be a Tiananmen-like massacre in the streets of Hong Kong, it is more likely that its mainland overlords will opt for more subtle ways of choking off Hong Kong’s remaining autonomy and freedoms. …right now, I would bet on the Chinese Communist Party over the protesters.

If Cowen is right, one thing that surely will happen is that money will flee.

And that may already be happening. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

Private bankers are being flooded with inquiries from investors in Hong Kong…wealthy investors are setting up ways to move their money out of the former British colony more quickly, bankers and wealth managers said. A major Asian wealth manager said it has received a large flow of new money in Singapore from Hong Kong over recent weeks, requesting not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. One Hong Kong private banker said the majority of the new queries he receives aren’t coming from the super-rich, most of whom already have alternative destinations for their money, but from individuals with assets in the $10 million to $20 million range. …The extradition fight reinforced concerns among Hong Kong investors and democracy advocates alike that the Beijing-backed government is eroding the legal wall separating the local judicial system from the mainland’s. …The recent demonstrations are the latest trigger in a long process of Chinese money flowing to Singapore, London, New York and other centers outside Beijing’s reach. …“Hong Kong has shot itself in the foot,” said Chong, a Malaysian who has permanent residency in both Hong Kong and Singapore. “Can you imagine Singapore allowing this?”

And keep in mind that big money is involved. Here’s a chart that accompanied the analysis.

Looking at these numbers, I want to emphasize again that China also will suffer if a crackdown causes money to flee Hong Kong.

Which is President Xi should resist the urge to intervene.

I’ll close with this visual depiction of Hong Kong’s amazing growth.

Let’s hope Beijing doesn’t try to reverse this progress.

P.S. You’ll notice that I didn’t advocate for democracy, either in this column or in the interview. That’s because I’m more concerned with protecting and promoting liberty. Yes, it’s good to have a democratic form of government. If I understand correctly, there’s also an empirical link between political freedom and economic freedom. But sometimes democracy simply means the ability to take other people’s money, using government as the middleman. That’s why the people of not-very-democratic Hong Kong are much better off than the people of democratic Greece.

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In this interview with Fox Business, I make my usual points (trade barriers are misguided, China is protectionist, Trump’s not responding wisely, etc).

For today’s column, though, I want to discuss who actually bears the burden of Trump’s trade taxes.

All of us (including the host) pointed out that consumers will pay more. To be sure, the tax technically is paid by importers as goods enter the country, but there’s near-universal agreement that the cost is largely passed along.

But keep in mind that American consumers are not the only victims. As I pointed out last year, as well as earlier this year, there’s lots of secondary damage. Taxpayers, workers, retailers, exporters, manufacturers, and investors in the United States also suffer.

And in other nations as well.

From an economic perspective, the key thing to understand is that there are direct costs and indirect costs. The importer bears the direct costs of the trade tax (i.e., they’re the folks who actually send money to the government).

The rest of us bear the indirect costs because the economy is less efficient and productive.

  • As consumers, we pay more.
  • As workers, we get paid less.
  • As investors, we earn lower returns.

There also are added costs on specific trade-dependent sectors (agriculture, for instance), as well as future victims since protectionism by the U.S. triggers protectionism by other nations.

And this doesn’t even consider the potential harm of currency devaluations. Geesh, no wonder financial markets are spooked.

The bottom line is that Trump is playing with fire. I’ve been happy to give him credit for his good policies (tax plan, regulatory easing), but what he’s doing on trade is definitely doing a lot of damage (exacerbated by the reckless spending).

To be sure, China also is suffering. But hurting ourselves to hurt China is not a smart strategy.

P.S. Taxes on trade are like taxes on business. In the former case, politicians say they’re imposing taxes on other countries, but people (consumers, workers, investors) are the victims. In the latter case, politicians say they’re imposing taxes on corporations, but people (consumers, workers, investors) are the victims.

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In my libertarian fantasies, we dramatically shrink the size of the federal government and return to pre-1913 policy by getting rid of the income tax.

But if I’m forced to be at least vaguely realistic, the second-best option is scrapping the current tax code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax based on the “Holy Trinity” of good policy.

The third-best option (i.e., the best we can hope for in the real world) is to adopt incremental reforms that move the tax code in the right direction.

That happened in 2017. I’ve written many times about why it was a very good idea to reduce the tax rate on corporate income. And I’ve also lauded the 2017 law’s limitation on the state and local tax deduction.

Today, let’s focus on the changes in that law that reduced the tax preference for residential real estate.

The housing lobby (especially builders and realtors) tried to scare lawmakers that any reduction in their privileged tax status would cause a large amount of damage.

Yet, as reported last year by the New York Times, there was no adverse effect in the first year of the new tax law.

It wasn’t supposed to take long for the Trump tax cuts to hobble housing prices… Nearly nine months later, those warnings have not materialized. …Economists see only faint effects from the new law so far in housing data. They’re small, and they’re contained to a few high-priced, highly taxed ZIP codes, largely in blue states. They’re nothing close to the carnage that real estate groups warned about when the law was under debate last fall. …the tax law has unquestionably diminished the value of several federal subsidies for homeowners. It limits deductions for state and local taxes, including property taxes, to $10,000 per household, which hurts owners of expensive homes in high-tax states. It lowers the cap on the mortgage interest deduction, which raises housing prices by allowing homeowners to write off the interest payments from their loans, to $750,000 for new loans, down from $1 million.

To the extent the impact could even be measured, it was a net plus for the economy.

After the law passed, ZIP codes in the Boston area saw a 0.6 percentage point slowdown in home appreciation on the Massachusetts side — and a 0.1 percent acceleration on the New Hampshire side. The effect there is “not huge, it’s small,”… Experts say several forces are helping to counteract the diminished federal home-buying subsidies. …said Kevin Hassett, “…if you’re getting a lot of income growth, the income growth increases the demand for housing, and the mortgage interest deduction reduces it. And the effects offset.”

This chart from the story is particularly persuasive. If anything, it appears housing values rose faster after the law was changed (though presumably due to bad policies such as building restrictions and zoning laws, not just the faster growth caused by a a shift in tax policy).

There’s also no negative effect one year later. A report from today’s New York Times finds that the hysterical predictions of the housing lobby haven’t materialized.

Even though the tax preference was significantly reduced.

The mortgage-interest deduction, a beloved tax break bound tightly to the American dream of homeownership, once seemed politically invincible. Then it nearly vanished in middle-class neighborhoods across the country, and it appears that hardly anyone noticed. …The 2017 law nearly doubled the standard deduction — to $24,000 for a couple filing jointly — on federal income taxes, giving millions of households an incentive to stop claiming itemized deductions. As a result, far fewer families — and, in particular, far fewer middle-class families — are claiming the itemized deduction for mortgage interest. In 2018, about one in five taxpayers claimed the deduction, Internal Revenue Service statistics show. This year, that number fell to less than one in 10. The benefit, as it remains, is largely for high earners, and more limited than it once was: The 2017 law capped the maximum value of new mortgage debt eligible for the deduction at $750,000, down from $1 million.

Once again, the evidence shows good news.

…housing professionals, home buyers and sellers — and detailed statistics about the housing market — show no signs that the drop in the use of the tax break is weighing on prices or activity. …Such reactions challenge a longstanding American political consensus. For decades, the mortgage-interest deduction has been alternately hailed as a linchpin of support for homeownership (by the real estate industry)…. most economists on the left and the right…argued that the mortgage-interest deduction violated every rule of good policymaking. It was regressive, benefiting wealthy families… Studies repeatedly found that the deduction actually reduced ownership rates by helping to inflate home prices, making homes less affordable to first-time buyers. …In the debate over the tax law in 2017, the industry warned that the legislation could cause house prices to fall 10 percent or more in some parts of the country. …Places where a large share of middle-class taxpayers took the mortgage-interest deduction, for example, have not seen any meaningful difference in price increases from less-affected areas.

Incidentally, here’s a chart from the story. It shows that the rich have always been the biggest beneficiaries of the tax preference.

And now the deduction that remains is even more skewed toward upper-income households.

As far as I’m concerned, the tax code shouldn’t punish people simply because they earn a lot of money.

But neither should it give them special goodies.

For what it’s worth, the mortgage interest deduction is not a left-vs-right or statism-vs-libertarian issue.

I’ve crossed swords on a few occasions with Bill Gale of the Brooking Institute, but his column a few months ago in the Wall Street Journal wisely calls for full repeal of this tax preference.

With any luck, the 2017 tax overhaul will prove to be only the first step toward eventually replacing the century-old housing subsidy… This is a welcome change. The mortgage-interest deduction has existed since the income tax was created in 1913, but it has never been easy to justify. …Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have no mortgage-debt subsidies, yet their homeownership rates are slightly higher than in the U.S. A large reduction in the mortgage-interest deduction in Denmark in 1987 had virtually no effect on homeownership rates. …The next step should be to eliminate the deduction altogether. The phaseout should be gradual but complete.

Here’s another example.

Nobody would ever accuse the folks at Slate of being market friendly, so this article is another sign that there’s a consensus against using the tax code to tilt the playing field in favor of residential real estate.

One of the most remarkable things about the tax bill Republicans passed last year was how it took a rotary saw to the mortgage interest deduction. The benefit for homeowners was once considered a politically untouchable upper-middle-class entitlement, but the GOP aggressively curtailed it in order to pay for cuts elsewhere in the tax code. …just 13.8 million households will subtract mortgage interest from their 2018 returns, down from 32.3 million in 2017. …if Democrats ever get a chance to kill off the vestigial remains of the mortgage interest deduction down the line, they might as well. …any negative effect of the tax law seems to have been drowned out by a healthy economy.

I’ll close by digging into the archives at the Heritage Foundation and dusting off one of my studies from 1996.

Analyzing the flat tax and home values, I pointed out that rising levels of personal income were the key to a strong housing market, not the value of the tax deduction.

Everything that’s happened over the past 23 years – and especially the past two years – confirms my analysis.

Simply stated, economic growth is how we get more good things in society. That’s true for housing, as explained above, and it’s also true for charitable giving.

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

Now we have another example.

Check out these excerpts from a New York Times column by Steven Greenhouse.

The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t have national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave. It is also the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee workers any vacation, paid or unpaid, and the only highly developed country (other than South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. …Among the three dozen industrial countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the lowest minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage — just 34 percent of the typical wage, compared with 62 percent in France and 54 percent in Britain. It also has the second-highest percentage of low-wage workers among that group… All this means the United States suffers from what I call “anti-worker exceptionalism.” …America’s workers have for decades been losing out: year after year of wage stagnation.

Sounds like the United States is some sort of Dystopian nightmare for workers, right?

Well, if there’s oppression of labor in America, workers in other nations should hope and pray for something similar.

Here’s a chart showing per-capita “actual individual consumption” for various nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As you can see, people in the United States have much higher living standards.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out another big flow in Greenhouse’s NYT column.

He wrote that the U.S. has “the second-highest percentage of low-wage workers.” That sounds like there’s lots of poverty in America. Especially since the U.S. is being compared to a group of nations that includes decrepit economies such as Mexico, Turkey, Italy, and Greece.

But this statement is nonsense because it is based on OECD numbers that merely measure the percent of workers in each nation that earn less than two-thirds of the national median level. Yet since median income generally is much higher in the United States, it’s absurd to use this data for international comparisons.

In other words, Greenhouse is relying on data that deliberately confuse absolute living standards and relative living standards. Why? Presumably to try to make the United States look bad and/or to advance a pro-redistribution agenda.

P.S. You can find similarly dishonest ways of measuring poverty from the United Nations, the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, the Obama Administration, and the European Commission.

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Back in 2014, I shared two videos – one narrated by Deirdre McCloskey and the other narrated by Don Boudreaux – explaining how the world went from near-universal poverty to mass prosperity (at least in the nations that embraced free markets and the rule of law).

Here’s a video with a similar theme, narrated by Dan Hannan, a British member of the European Parliament (hopefully not for long).

I like this video because it goes back 10,000 years to the invention of agriculture.

Hannan explains how this led to the creation of governments, basically acting as “stationary bandits.”

And for thousands of years, a tiny elite of kings and nobles basically acted as dictators while 99 percent of people endured horrid lives of slavery, oppression, poverty, and misery.

But then, as Hannan discusses (and also explained in the McCloskey and Bourdreaux videos), arbitrary power eventually was replaced by the rule of law and government control was replaced by economic liberty.

Not completely, of course, but to a sufficient degree that there was enough “breathing room” for a private economy to develop. And, in some cases, to flourish.

The result? Massive, amazing, and unthinkable prosperity for ordinary people.

Which gives me a good excuse to share this quote from Joseph Schumpeter, one of the economists from the Austrian School.

Yes, capitalism does wonderful things…assuming politicians don’t get too greedy and saddle us with “goldfish government.”

At times, I’m not overly optimistic. Given the growth of dependency, the expansion of government, and demographic decline, I fear there may be 22nd-century videos discussing how the United States reached a “tipping point” and went downhill.

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When I write about Estonia, I generally have something nice to say.

Today, I want to add to my praise for this Baltic nation.

Unlike politicians in many other nations, lawmakers in Estonia responded wisely when they saw a tax increase was backfiring.

As Estonia tries to recover its alcohol customers lost to neighbouring Latvia due to high excise duty, the parliament in Tallinn has passed a 25% cut in excise duty rate. Estonian public broadcaster ERR reports that the bill was passed on Thursday, June 13, in the Riigikogu by landslide. In the final reading, the bill was passed by 70-9 MP in favour backing the cutting of the alcohol excise duty rates for beer, cider and hard liquor by 25% beginning July 1. The amendments to the Estonian Alcohol, Tobacco, Fuel and Electricity Excise Duty Law…are aimed at reducing cross-border trade of Estonians buying their drinks much cheaper in northern Latvia.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Estonian politicians shouldn’t have increased excise taxes on booze in the first place.

And they may have fixed the problem because they got on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve (i.e., tax revenue was falling), not because of a philosophical preference for lower tax rates.

But rectifying a mistake is definitely better than doubling down on a mistake, which is how politicians in many other nations probably would have reacted.

This approach, combined with the good policies listed above, helps to explain why Estonia is one of the few economic success stories to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Though, in closing, I’ll note that the country needs additional pro-market reform to deal with the challenge of demographic decline.

P.S. Read what Estonia’s Minister of Justice wrote about totalitarian socialism.

P.P.S. Also read about how Paul Krugman earned an “exploding cigar” with some sloppy analysis about Estonia.

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