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Archive for August, 2019

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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