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Archive for October, 2019

My all-time favorite bit of Halloween humor is this video, which I periodically recycle.

Courtesy of the satirists at Babylon Bee, we now have some more Halloween-themed humor.

A haunted house for our left-leaning friends!

It’s that time of year where houses, churches, and businesses around the neighborhood begin opening up their haunted houses for those seeking a good fright. One haunted house in Portland is promising progressives the scariest experience of all: a tour of a regular conservative guy’s home. The home contains a sizable collection of guns, several Bibles, a few American flags, some pictures of Ronald Reagan, and of course, a copy of the Constitution. “I can’t look!” screamed one progressive as he opened one door and saw a hunting rifle. “Ahhhhh!!!” He ran from the house screaming, taking shelter in a nearby yoga studio. …No progressive has currently made it through more than a few rooms in the house, as they usually run screaming or dive out a window in their hurry to get away.

By the way, we can’t have a holiday without considering how it is hindered by the visible foot of government (as opposed to the prosperity-creating invisible hand of the market).

Janelle Cammenga of the Tax Foundation has some analysis of how state politicians have turned the taxation of candy into a complicated mess.

If you’re like many Americans, you’ve been stockpiling bags of chocolate and nougat-based treats to share with trick-or-treaters… In other words, there’s no better time for a map looking at how different state sales taxes treat consumable goods like candy… Forty-five states and the District of Columbia levy a state sales tax. Of those, thirty-two states and the District of Columbia exempt groceries from the sales tax base. Twenty-three states and D.C. treat either candy or soda differently than groceries. Eleven of the states that exempt groceries from their sales tax base include both candy and soda in their definition of groceries: Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wyoming. …This picking and choosing creates arbitrary and counterintuitive discrepancies that go beyond the bowl of Halloween candy. If you live in New Jersey, it also affects the jack-o-lantern on your front porch. A recent tweet by the New Jersey Division of Taxation reminded consumers that decorative pumpkins are subject to sales tax, but pumpkins intended to be eaten are exempt. …Twenty-four states align with the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA), which determines that candy is different from other sweet foods because it comes in the form of bars, drops, or pieces, and does not contain flour. …this particular definition leads to some interesting distinctions: If you bought a Hershey’s® bar, it would be subject to sales tax. If you bought a Twix® bar, it would be tax-free.

If that wasn’t sufficiently confusing, here’s a map showing the strange mix of different tax regimes.

At the risk of being wonky, the best sales tax is zero. Just like the best income tax is zero.

But if politicians are going to grab that source of revenue, they should have the lowest-possible rate and impose it evenly on all consumption. As the Tax Foundation observed, “…states and consumers alike would benefit from a low, flat-rate sales tax that captures all final consumer products. Such a tax would be easy to administer, providing a stable source of revenue through a neutral and transparent structure.”

At the risk of understatement, it’s not good tax policy to have zero-tax rules for groceries combined with a hodge-podge of special taxes on candy.

But politicians benefit from a complicated approach because they can swap special favors for campaign cash. Just like the crowd in Washington uses the internal revenue code as a means of extorting money.

P.S. Thanks to corrupt sugar subsidies, our Halloween candy is needlessly expensive.

P.P.S If you want more Halloween-themed humor, here are some oldies but goodies about Obamacare. And here a couple of classics about class-warfare Halloween.

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In some cases, politicians actually understand the economics of tax policy.

It’s quite common, for instance, to hear them urging higher taxes on tobacco because they want to discourage smoking.

I don’t think it’s their job to tell people how to live their lives, but I agree with their economic analysis. The more you tax something, the less you get of it.

One of my many frustrations is that those politicians then conveniently forget that lesson when it comes to taxing things that are good, such as work, saving, production, and investment.

And some countries are more punitive than others. There’s some new research from the European Policy Information Center, Timbro, and the Tax Foundation, that estimates the “effective marginal tax rate” for successful taxpayers for 41 major countries.

And they don’t simply look at the top income tax rates. They quite properly include other taxes that contribute to “deadweight loss” by driving a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

The political discussion around taxing high-earners usually revolves around the income tax, but in order to get a complete picture of the tax burden high-income earners face, it is important to consider effective marginal tax rates. The effective marginal tax rate answers the question, “If a worker gets a raise such that the total cost to the employer increases by one dollar, how much of that is appropriated by the government in the form of income tax, social security contributions, and consumption taxes?” …all taxes that affect the return to work should be taken into account. …Combining data mainly from international accounting firms, the OECD, and the European Commission, we are able to calculate marginal tax rates in the 41 members of the OECD and/or EU.

The main message of this research is that you don’t want to live in Sweden, where you only keep 24 percent of any additional income you produce.

And you should also avoid Slovenia, Belgium, Portugal, Finland, France, etc.

Congratulations to Bulgaria for being the anti-class warfare nation. That’s a smart strategy for a nation trying to recover from decades of communist deprivation.

American readers will be happy to see that the United States looks reasonably good, though New Zealand is the best of the rich nations, followed by Switzerland.

Speaking of which, we need a caveat for nations with federalist systems, such as the U.S., Switzerland, and Canada. In these cases, the top income tax rate is calculated by adding the central government’s top rate with the average top rate for sub-national governments.

So successful entrepreneurs in those countries actually have the ability to reduce their tax burdens if they make wise decisions on where to live (such as Texas or Florida in the case of the United States).

Let’s now shift to some economic analysis. The report makes (what should be) an obvious point that high tax rates have negative economic effects.

Countries should be cautious about placing excessive tax burdens on high-income earners, for several reasons. In the short run, high marginal tax rates induce tax avoidance and tax evasion, and can cause high-income earners to reduce their work effort or hours.

I would add another adverse consequence. Successful taxpayers can move.

That’s especially true in Europe, where cross-border tax migration is much easier than it is in the United States.

But even though there are odious exit taxes for people leaving the United States, we’ll see an exodus if we wind up with some of the crazy tax policies being advocated by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

P.S. Today’s column looks at how nations rank based on the taxation of labor income. For taxation of capital income, the rankings look quite different. For instance, because of pervasive double taxation, the United States gets poor scores for over-taxing dividends, capital gains, and businesses.

P.P.S. If you want to see tax rates on middle-income workers (though it omits value-added taxes), here is some OECD data.

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In early September, I wrote about how capital and labor are both necessary to create prosperity.

Economists sometimes explain this with lots of jargon, referring to capital and labor as “factors of production” and pointing out how they are “complementary.”

In ordinary English, this simply means that workers earn more income when they are equipped with better machinery, equipment, and technology. Similarly, investors can only generate earnings if they have people to utilize capital.

This doesn’t mean that there’s a happy relationship between labor and capital. Indeed, there’s a constant tug or war over who gets what slice of the economic pie.

That being said, the relationship tends to be reasonably cordial so long as the pie is growing.

According to some folks on the left, though, that’s not the case. From their perspective, workers get screwed and capitalists grab ever-larger slices. Consider, for example, this tweet from @existentialcoms.

This tweet made a big splash, with nearly 30,000 likes and more than 12,500 re-tweets.

But there was a slight problem. Actually, a big problem.

There was a counter-tweet from @ne0liberal featuring three graphs that demolish the core premise of the tweet from @existentialcoms.

Here are the three graphs that @ne0liberal shared.

The first one confirms that workers enjoy far more leisure time than in the past.

The second one uses current data to show that more productive workers have much more leisure time.

And the third one reveals that worker compensation has increased significantly.

The unambiguous conclusion is that capitalism produces very good outcomes for workers. If @existentialcoms and @ne0liberal were in a boxing match, this would be a first-round knockout.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to point out that there are no real-world examples of good results produced by socialism. Or Marxism. Or fascism. Or by any form of statism.

Yes, there are some rich nations with big welfare states, but they only imposed those policies after they became rich.

Which is why I’m still waiting for any of my friends on the left to successfully respond to this challenge.

P.S. Since I’ve decided that @ne0liberal produced the counter-tweet of the year, I may as well also call attention to the best-ever tweet about capitalism and socialism, the world’s most-depressing tweet, and Trump’s worst-ever tweet.

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The World Bank has released its annual report on the Ease of Doing Business.

Unsurprisingly, the top spots are dominated by market-oriented jurisdictions, with New Zealand, Singapore, and Hong Kong (at least for now!) winning the gold, silver, and bronze. The United States does reasonably well, finishing in sixth place.

It’s also worth noting that Nordic nations do quite well. Denmark even beats the United States, and Norway and Sweden are both in the top 10.

Georgia gets a very good score, as does Taiwan. And I’m sure Pope Francis will be irked to see that Mauritius ranks highly.

I’m surprised, though, to see Russia at #28 and China at #31. That’s better than France!

And I’m even more surprised that normally laissez-faire Switzerland is down at #36.

What economic lessons can we learn from the report? First, the authors remind us that less red tape means more prosperity.

Research demonstrates a causal relationship between economic freedom and gross domestic product (GDP) growth, where freedom regarding wages and prices, property rights, and licensing requirements leads to economic development. … The ease of doing business score serves as the basis for ranking economies on their business environment: the ranking is obtained by sorting the economies by their scores. The ease of doing business score shows an economy’s absolute position relative to the best regulatory performance, whereas the ease of doing business ranking is an indication of an economy’s position relative to that of other economies.

By the way, here’s a simple depiction of the World Bank’s methodology.

It’s also worth noting that less intervention means less corruption.

There are ample opportunities for corruption in economies where excessive red tape and extensive interactions between private sector actors and regulatory agencies are necessary to get things done. The 20 worst-scoring economies on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index average 8 procedures to start a business and 15 to obtain a building permit. Conversely, the 20 best-performing economies complete the same formalities with 4 and 11 steps, respectively. Moreover, economies that have adopted electronic means of compliance with regulatory requirements—such as obtaining licenses and paying taxes—experience a lower incidence of bribery.

Poor countries, not surprisingly, have more red tape.

An entrepreneur in a low-income economy typically spends around 50 percent of the country’s per-capita income to launch a company, compared with just 4.2 percent for an entrepreneur in a high-income economy. It takes nearly six times as long on average to start a business in the economies ranked in the bottom 50 as in the top 20. There’s ample room for developing economies to catch up with developed countries on most of the Doing Business indicators. Performance in the area of legal rights, for example, remains weakest among low- and middle-income economies.

Africa and Latin America are especially bad.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the weak-performing regions on the ease of doing business with an average score of 51.8, well below the OECD high-income economy average of 78.4 and the global average of 63.0. …Latin America and the Caribbean also lags in terms of reform implementation and impact. …not a single economy in Latin America and the Caribbean ranks among the top 50 on the ease of doing business.

I’m disappointed, by the way, that Chile is only ranked #59.

Now let’s shift to some very important graphs about the relationship between economic freedom and national prosperity.

We’ll start with a look at the relationship between employment regulation and per-capita income. Not surprisingly, countries that make it hard to hire workers and fire workers have lower levels of prosperity.

Here’s a chart showing the relationship between employment regulation and the underground economy.

The moral of the story is that lots of red tape drives employers and employees to the black market.

Perhaps most important, there’s a very clear link between good regulatory policy and overall entrepreneurship.

Here’s a bit of good news.

Developing nations have reduced the burden of red tape in some areas, in part because Ease of Doing Business puts pressure on governments.

We can see the results in this chart.

I’ll close with a look at the regulatory burden in the United States, which also can be considered good news.

Here’s the annual score for the past five years (a higher number is better).

I’m frequently critical of this White House, but I also believe in giving credit when it’s deserved. The bottom line is that Trump’s policies have been a net plus for businesses.

In other words, lower tax rates and less red tape have more than offset the pain of protectionism.

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In a column last week, I noted that Connecticut ranked near the bottom for state tax policy.

And if there was a contest for which state has gone downhill at the fastest pace, the Nutmeg State would likely prevail.

Less than 30 years ago, the state was reasonably competitive, largely because there was no state income tax. But ever since politicians in Hartford got access to that new source of revenue, the state’s finances have spiraled downward.

There are lots of interesting numbers (unfunded pensions, state spending growth, etc) I could share to illustrate the state’s grim outlook.

But sometimes a picture can say 1,000 words.

Some Connecticut communities are having local elections this November. Apparently, based on this horrifying yard sign, Democrats in South Windsor are bragging about “only” imposing a small tax increase.

By the way, they’re not just bragging about a small tax increase rather than a large tax increase. If I read the sign correctly, there have been tax increases every single year for the past decade.

So local Democrats are basically telling voters, “hey, we’re confiscating ever-increasing amounts of your money every year, but you should be grateful since this year’s increase was comparatively small.”

And, given Connecticut’s awful political climate, that’s apparently a winning message!

By the way, I’m not naive. Or at least not hopelessly naive. When I first saw this sign, I thought it was fake. Sort of like this protest sign from the Occupy Wall Street movement.

And since I have been burned before (this doctored Justin Trudeau quote about Brexit), I did some additional research.

I found the Facebook page for the South Windsor Democrats. Lo and behold, there was a campaign video bragging about all the smaller-than-usual tax hike.

They also shared a letter-to-the-editor bragging about how taxes “only” increased 1.9 percent this year.

It’s possible, of course, that someone went through all the trouble of creating fake signs, fake Facebook pages, and fake letters-to-the-editor. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

This is real. Connecticut is such a mess that candidates try to get votes by bragging about confiscating more money, but at a slower rate of increase.

The only possible advice I have for state residents is to move. Florida would be a good choice.

P.S. South Windsor Democrats might actually have a semi-compelling message if Republicans had been in charge for the previous nine years and had been increasing taxes every year by more than 1.9 percent (and there certainly are plenty of terrible Republicans). But if that was the case, I assume they would have mentioned that in their campaign literature.

P.P.S. Since I’m not partisan, here’s some advice for South Windsor Democrats. Adopt D.C.-type budgeting and build in a “baseline” showing 5 percent annual tax increases. Then, when you “only” raise taxes by 1.9 percent, you can tell voters you actually gave them a 3.1 percent tax cut. You may be thinking that’s ridiculously dishonest and beyond the pale (and it is), but that’s how they do budgeting in Washington.

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This week featured lots of angst-ridden headlines about the annual budget deficit for the 2019 fiscal year (which ended on September 30) jumping to $984 billion, an increase of more than $200 billion.

For reasons I’ve previously outlined, I don’t lose too much sleep about the level of government borrowing. What’s far more important is the burden of government spending.

Whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing, the level of spending is what really matters. Simply stated, that number measures the amount of money that politicians divert from the economy’s productive sector.

That being said, it’s sometimes very illuminating to look at why red ink goes up and down.

So I went to the Treasury Department’s most-recent Monthly Treasury Statement and looked at the raw numbers. What did I find?

Lo and behold, the deficit jumped to $984 billion because outlays are increasing twice as fast as revenue.

Perhaps even more discouraging, the burden of spending is rising more than four times faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

These are very discouraging numbers, especially when you keep in mind that this is the calm before the storm. Because of poorly designed entitlement programs and an ageing population, our fiscal situation will deteriorate even faster in the future.

Unless there’s much-needed reform.

But I’m not holding out much hope. Trump is a big spender and Congress is filled with big spenders.

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In a recent interview, I was asked whether all the new spending schemes proposed by Democratic candidates would lead (as has been the case in Europe) to enormous tax increases on the middle class.

The answer is yes, of course.

But most of the candidates are not honest on this issues (with the partial exception of Crazy Bernie). They’re promising – literally – trillions of dollars in added handouts, but their proposed tax increases only cover a tiny fraction of the cost.

Elizabeth Warren may be the most extreme example of this phenomenon.

She’s embraced every possible tax on higher-income taxpayers, including a sure-to-backfire wealth tax. But all of those tax increases wouldn’t come close to financing her spending agenda – even if one makes the heroic assumption that there’s no adverse economic impact and negative revenue feedback.

The Wall Street Journal opined on her absurd approach.

Tuesday’s Democratic debate…most important news was Senator Elizabeth Warren’s determined refusal to say if her plans would require taxes to increase on the middle class. …South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg…added, accurately, that “no plan has been laid out to explain how a multi-trillion-dollar hole in this Medicare for All plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in.” …Senator Klobuchar…said “at least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up. And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.” …this illuminates a problem with Ms. Warren’s agenda and her political character. On Medicare for All, everyone agrees that the cost will be at least $32 trillion over 10 years. Ms. Warren could impose her wealth tax, her higher taxes on capital gains, her higher income taxes on the affluent, and she still wouldn’t come close to paying for Medicare for All. And that’s before her plans for new spending entitlements on child care, pre-K education, free college and so much more. The only way to pay for this is to raise taxes on the middle class, which is where the real money is. That’s how government health care is financed in Europe.

But it’s not just the pro-market crowd at the Wall Street Journal that is raising the issue.

Even writers at Vox find it difficult to rationalize Sen. Warren’s evasive math.

Bernie Sanders…acknowledged that…middle-class taxes would have to go up… It was a rare moment when someone running for the Democratic presidential nomination admitted that their spending ambitions would have to be paid for by taxes that touch not just the wealthiest Americans but taxpayers further down the bracket. …Trying to sell a big progessive agenda on the backs of the rich may be popular. But the admission that middle-class taxes may have to go up is an admission that there may not be enough rich people in America to pay for it all. …Warren…indicated last week that she supports…Medicare-for-All… Such a plan would overhaul the entirety of the US health care system with a single-payer system funded through general revenue and debt. Here the promise of a vast welfare state solely funded by new taxes on the rich runs aground.

It’s gotten to the point that some left-leaning economists are scrambling to help square Warren’s circle.

Here are some excerpts from a report in today’s Washington Post, including some of the horrifying tax increases that her advisers are contemplating.

Internal and external economic policy advisers are trying to help Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) design a way to finance a single-payer Medicare-for-all health-care system…her team faces a challenge in crafting a plan that would bring in large amounts of revenue while not scaring off voters with big middle-class tax increases. The proposal could cost more than $30 trillion over 10 years. Complicating matters, she has already committed all of the money she would raise from a new wealth tax, close to $3 trillion over 10 years, to several other ideas… Robert Pollin, a left-leaning economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has worked with the Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) teams, …suggests…a $600 billion annual “gross receipts” tax on businesses, …a 3.75 percent sales tax on “nonnecessities” that exempts low-income households, to raise an additional $200 billion; and a 0.38 percent tax on wealth above $1 million, which he says would raise the remaining $200 billion. Robert C. Hockett, a Cornell University professor who has also advised Warren and Sanders, said he has urged Warren’s team to propose financing Medicare-for-all in part with a “public premium” that would function similarly to a tax. …Warren’s team has also received recommendations to adopt a “progressive consumption tax”… This plan would raise trillions of dollars.

Wow, a smorgasbord of French-style tax ideas.

Let’s close with a chart from Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute.

As you can see, even if you combine all of the class-warfare taxes, they don’t come close to paying the $30 trillion price tag of Medicare for All.

The only good news, so to speak, is that Sen. Warren is a politician. She’s first and foremost interested in winning office and probably isn’t totally serious about actually creating all sorts of new entitlement schemes (just like I don’t particularly believe Republicans who put forth election-year plans for tax reform).

But that’s hardly a comforting observation since there would be “public choice” pressures to adopt at least some bad policy if she got to the White House.

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