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Archive for September, 2020

Some of my right-wing friends complain about “judicial activism,” which seems to mean that they want courts to defer to other branches of government.

Since I’m opposed to majoritarianism and because I want courts to defend and protect all parts of the Constitution, I put together this visual to illustrate why I think they’ve picked the wrong goal.

This handful of examples is designed to make clear that “activism” is sometimes appropriate.

But not always, which is why constitutionalism should be the right goal.

In a column for Reason, Damon Root gives a good example of what this means.

In 1938 the Supreme Court concocted a bifurcated approach to judicial review that treats some constitutional rights as more equal than others. If a law or regulation infringes on a right that the Court has deemed fundamental (such as freedom of speech or the right to vote), the Court said in United States v. Carolene Products Co., the judiciary should presume that law or regulation to be unconstitutional and subject it to “more exacting judicial scrutiny.” By contrast, in cases dealing with “regulatory legislation affecting ordinary commercial transactions,” Carolene Products stated, “the existence of facts supporting the legislative judgment is to be presumed.” In other words, judges are supposed to tip the scales in favor of lawmakers when economic liberty might be at stake. Now known as the rational-basis test, this rubber stamp approach has led to some truly dreadful judgments. …the rational-basis standard…runs counter to the text and history of the 14th Amendment, which was written, ratified, and originally understood to protect (among other rights) the right to economic liberty. In the words of Rep. John Bingham (R), the Ohio congressman who served as the principal author of Section One of the 14th Amendment in 1866, “the provisions of the Constitution guaranteeing rights, privileges, and immunities” includes “the constitutional liberty…to work in an honest calling and contribute by your toil in some sort to the support of yourself, to the support of your fellow men, and to be secure in the enjoyment of the fruits of your toil.”

Sounds like United States v. Carolene Products Co. ranks up there with Wickard v. Filburn as one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions.

George Will shares some thoughts on the proper role of the judiciary in his Washington Post column.

For every American, a courtroom should be a level playing field, with the law blind to the “identity, power, and resources of the litigants.” This is not, however, the reality when an individual challenges a statute’s constitutionality. The tilted field favors the government — meaning legislative majorities — because federal jurisprudence invented, and…states have reflexively adopted, the presumption of constitutionality. …In Federalist No. 78, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority.” However, the presumption of statutory constitutionality has this practical consequence: Although the members of all three branches of government swear constitutional oaths, legislatures enjoy practical primacy. …Clark Neily notes that between 1954 and 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated 0.65 percent of the laws Congress passed (103 of 15,817), 0.5 percent of federal regulations and less than 0.05 percent of state laws. Those who praise such judicial passivity must implausibly assume, as Neily says, that government “hits the constitutional strike zone” at least 99.5 percent of the time. How likely is this? Judicial passivity has been encouraged by decades of reflexive conservative denunciations of “judicial activism.” These denunciations have been paired with celebrations of “judicial deference” to legislative majoritarianism.

Mr. Will has made a strong argument that we could use a bit more “activism” and a bit less “deference.” Properly defined, of course.

Properly defined, of course. Looking at the image to the right, I want an activist judiciary when the tree is outside the fence and a deferential judiciary when the tree is inside the fence.

And that doesn’t necessarily mean libertarian policy.

For instance, the Constitution does include a postal service as one of the enumerated powers. That doesn’t mean the federal government is obliged to set up post offices, but they certainly have that right.

And, thanks to the unfortunate mistake of the 16th Amendment, our wretched internal revenue code passes constitutional muster (though having the authority to tax is not the same as the authority to spend).

P.S. You won’t be surprised to learn that E.J. Dionne is against the right kind of judicial activism.

P.P.S. Several people have messaged me over the years to ask about abortion and the Constitution. That’s not my area of expertise, but I’ll simply observe that it won’t make much difference if Roe vs. Wade is overturned. All that would happen is that legislatures would be in charge and many states would allow abortion on demand.

P.P.P.S. I also get asked about the advisability of a balanced budget amendment. That might be better than nothing, but a spending cap provision (similar to what exists in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado) would be far preferable.

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Last November, I criticized Nancy Pelosi’s scheme to impose European-style price controls on pharmaceutical drugs in the United States.

I wasn’t the only one who objected to Pelosi’s reckless idea.

We have forty centuries of experience demonstrating that price controls don’t work. The inevitable result is shortages and diminished production (sellers won’t produce sufficient quantities of a product if they are forced to lose money on additional sales).

Which helps to explain why the Wall Street Journal also was not a fan of Pelosi’s proposal

Here’s some of the paper’s editorial on the adverse impact of her proposed intervention.

Mrs. Pelosi’s legislation would direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to “negotiate” a “fair price” with drug manufacturers… Any company that refuses to negotiate would get slapped with a 65% excise tax on its annual gross sales that would escalate by 10% each quarter. Yes, 65% on sales. …The bill also sets a starting point for Medicare negotiations at 1.2 times the average price of drugs in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K.—all of which have some form of socialized health system. …foreign price controls have reduced access to breakthrough treatments. …Price controls are also a prescription for less innovation since they reduce the payoff on risky research and development. …Only about 12% of molecules that enter clinical testing ultimately obtain FDA approval, and those successes have to pay for the 88% that fail. …Price controls would hamper competition by slowing new drug development. The U.S. accounts for most of the world’s pharmaceutical research and development, so there would be fewer breakthrough therapies for rare pediatric genetic disorders, cancers or hearing loss.

A damning indictment of knee-jerk interventionism, to put it mildly.

Well, a bad idea from Democrats such as price controls doesn’t magically become a good idea simply because it subsequently gets pushed by a Republican (unless, of course, you qualify as a partisan as defined by my Ninth Theorem of Government).

Unfortunately, we now have a new example of bipartisan foolishness.

Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity opined on President Trump’s misguided plan to adopt European-style price controls.

…other nations have been free riders on America’s innovative pharmaceutical industry. …they have enacted socialist price controls to limit what they pay knowing that the largest market would pick up the slack to ensure a steady supply of new lifesaving drugs. It needs to stop, but President Trump’s recent executive order is not the right way to do it. …his “Most Favored Nations” Executive Order to…limit…prescription medication payments made through Medicare… But this is a flawed way of thinking about the problem. Other nations are…engaging in theft via price controls. …drugs can take months or even a year longer to arrive in countries with socialist healthcare systems. Patients suffer as a result… Another likely consequence is less innovation. Some drugs in this new price environment will no longer be cost effective to be developed. Patients again will suffer. …Getting foreign jurisdictions to pay for their share of pharmaceutical innovation by putting a stop to price manipulation is a noble goal. But it should not come at the expense U.S. industry and patients.

A study by Doug Badger for the Galen Institute points out that the Trump Administration’s approach – for all intents and purposes – would use Obamacare’s so-called Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to impose foreign price controls on prescription drugs in the United States.

The Affordable Care Act created CMMI and vested it with extraordinary powers. …The statute also shields CMMI projects against administrative and judicial review. …two HHS secretaries have claimed authority under CMMI to mandate a Medicare Part B payment mechanism without having to seek new legislation. …the Trump administration issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) announcing its intention to propose a far more sweeping Medicare Part B drug demonstration project….to…scrap the ASP Medicare reimbursement methodology in favor of one based on drug prices paid in other countries. …CMS is considering the establishment of an “international price index” (IPI). It would calculate the IPI based on the average price per standard unit of a drug in select foreign countries.

This is troubling for several reasons.

…the other countries on the proposed list have lower living standards than do Americans, as measured by per capita household disposable income… The median disposable per-capita income in the IPI countries is thus about one-third less than in the U.S. …Medicare reimbursement for physician-administered drugs would largely be based on international reference prices in which the regulatory agency of one government sets drug prices based at least in part on those set by regulatory agencies in other countries. …for all the different payment methodologies Congress has devised for medical goods and services, it has never based reimbursement on prices that prevail in foreign countries. The agency’s role is to implement congressionally-established reimbursement systems, not to create them out of whole cloth.

As you might expect, the Wall Street Journal has also weighed in on Trump’s plan.

The editorial points out there will be very adverse consequences if the President imposes European-style price controls.

Mr. Trump signed an executive order that could make…life-saving therapies less likely. Mr. Trump has been threatening drug makers for months with government price controls. …The President’s order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to require drug makers to give Medicare the “most favored nation” (i.e., lowest) price that other economically developed countries pay. …This ignores some crucial details. …Other countries also have to wait longer for breakthrough therapies, which is one reason the U.S. has much higher cancer survival rates. …The larger reality is that developing novel therapies isn’t cheap and can take years—sometimes decades—of research. Most products in clinical pipelines fail, and even those that succeed aren’t guaranteed to produce a profit. …The risk for all Americans is that drug makers will shelve therapies for hard-to-treat diseases that are in the early stages of development because of the high failure rate and low expected profit. This risk is most acute for therapies that treat rarer forms of diseases… The victims will be the cancer patients of the future, including perhaps some reading this editorial.

The bottom line, as I noted in the above interview and as many others have observed, is that other nations are free-riding on American consumers.

They get access to most of the drugs at low prices (since pharmaceuticals are cheap to produce once they are finally approved).

But the net result, as I tried to illustrate in this modified image, is that American consumers finance the lion’s share of new research and development.

This isn’t fair.

But we’d be jumping from the frying pan into the fire if we had European-type price controls that stifled innovation by pharmaceutical companies.

Sure, we’d enjoy lower prices in the short run, but we would have fewer life-saving drugs in the future.

P.S. There’s an analogy between prescription drugs and NATO since Americans bear a disproportionate share of costs for both. However, there’s a strong argument that there’s no longer a need for NATO. By contrast, I don’t think anyone thinks it would be a good idea to stifle the development of new drugs.

P.P.S. As an alternative, a friend has been urging me to support the idea of using the coercive power of government to mandate that American-based pharmaceutical companies charge market prices when selling overseas – an approach that would give foreign governments a choice of paying more or not getting the drugs. That seems like a better approach, at least in theory, but my friend has no answer when I point out that those companies would then have an incentive to leave the United States (as many firms did before Trump lowered the corporate tax rate to improve U.S. competitiveness).

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I frequently cite Mark Perry in my columns (including what I wrote yesterday) because he has an uncommon ability to focus on what’s actually important when writing about economic issues.

It turns out he also has that ability when it comes to social issues, as illustrated by this tweet.

For those who aren’t familiar with Ms. Taylor, she was killed when cops raided her residence based on a dubious search warrant.

That incident, and the subsequent fallout, has triggered social unrest, and I recommend David French’s analysis if you want to know more about the various legal issues surrounding the case.

I want to focus on the bigger point, which is the foolishness of the War on Drugs.

Jacob Sullum of Reason captures my feelings in this excellent article.

Louisville, Kentucky, police officers did a lot of things wrong when they killed Breonna Taylor, an unarmed 26-year-old EMT and aspiring nurse, during a fruitless no-knock drug raid last spring. But the litany of errors that led to Taylor’s death would be incomplete if it did not include the biggest mistake of all: the belief that violence is an appropriate response to peaceful conduct that violates no one’s rights. If politicians did not uncritically accept that premise, which underlies a war on drugs that the government has been waging for more than a century, Taylor would still be alive. …Drug prohibition legalizes conduct that otherwise would be instantly recognized as felonious, including assault, theft, trespassing, burglary, kidnapping, and murder. It makes police officers enemies to be feared rather than allies to be welcomed. …That problem goes far beyond the cases, such as Taylor’s, that are highlighted by Black Lives Matter. When a middle-aged white couple is killed in a drug raid instigated by a black narcotics officer who lied to obtain the search warrant (as happened in Houston last year) or a white 19-year-old is fatally shot by a white police officer during a marijuana sting (as happened in South Carolina several years ago), those outcomes are just as senseless and heartbreaking as the death of a young black woman gunned down by white drug warriors.

The individual tragedies in the War on Drugs, he explains, are compounded by the societal damage.

At any given time, nearly half a million people are incarcerated in U.S. jails or prisons for drug offenses. Drug offenders account for almost half of federal prisoners and 15 percent of state prisoners. Arresting all of those people for actions that violated no one’s rights unjustly deprives them of their liberty and impairs their life prospects. It also hurts their families and communities. …Which is not to say that the burdens of prohibition fall exclusively on people who like illegal drugs. Everyone else pays too, in the form of squandered taxpayer money, diverted law enforcement resources, theft driven by artificially high drug prices, and eroded civil liberties. …The war on drugs is also the main excuse for the system of legalized theft known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to take cash and other property they claim is connected to drug offenses.

I would add just one point to Sullum’s superb column. The War on Drugs is not only responsible for the horrid policy of asset forfeiture, it’s also the excuse for costly and intrusive laws on “money laundering.”

I’ll close with a few additional observations.

I’ve previously explained why the War on Drugs is pointless and counterproductive.

My argument isn’t that drugs do no harm. Instead, I want people to understand that the social harm of criminalization is much greater than the social harm of legalization.

If you want some additional data, I strongly recommend this collection of tweets by Joshua Collins.

And here’s the logic – or lack of logic – of the War on Drugs captured in an image.

I call this the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of government failure.

P.S. Mark Perry is also famous for his Venn diagrams that expose hypocrisy (see here, here, here, here, and here). He even motivated me to create my own version.

 

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I’ve shared many videos (here, here, here, here, here, and here) explaining how government has made America’s health system expensive and inefficient. I especially recommend my 2019 speech to the European Resource Bank.

Now let’s add this video to our collection.

One lesson to take from all these videos is that the main problem with America’s health care system is multiple forms of government intervention (MedicareMedicaid, the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, etc).

And the main symptom of all that intervention is pervasive “third-party payer,” which is the term for a system where people buy goods and services with other people’s money.

And guess what happens when people go shopping with other people’s money?

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains that third-party payer leads to higher costs.

One of the reasons that the costs of medical care services in the US have increased more than twice as much as general consumer prices since 1998 is that a large and increasing share of medical costs are paid by third parties (private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.) and only a small and shrinking percentage of health care costs are paid out-of-pocket by consumers. …It’s no big surprise that overall health care costs have continued to rise over time as the share of third-party payments has risen to almost 90% and the out-of-pocket share approaches 10%. Consumers of health care have significantly reduced incentives to monitor prices and be cost-conscious buyers of medical and hospital services when they pay only about $1 out of every $10 spent themselves, and the incentives of medical care providers to hold costs down are greatly reduced knowing that their customers aren’t paying out-of-pocket and aren’t price sensitive.

The best part of his article is when he compares cosmetic medical care to regular medical care to show how market forces – when allowed – lead to lower costs in the health sector.

Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients typically paying 100% out-of-pocket for elective cosmetic procedures are cost-conscious and have strong incentives to shop around and compare prices at the dozens of competing providers in any large city. Providers operate in a very competitive market with transparent pricing and therefore have incentives to provide cosmetic procedures at competitive prices. Those providers are also less burdened and encumbered by the bureaucratic paperwork that is typically involved with the provision of most standard medical care with third-party payments. Because of the price transparency and market competition that characterizes the market for cosmetic procedures, the prices of most cosmetic procedures have fallen in real terms.

Here’s Mark’s chart showing how costs have changed over the past 20 years.

Pay special attention to the bottom right, where I’ve highlighted in red  how competition and markets have lowered relative prices for cosmetic care – which starkly contrasts with the health sectors where government plays a dominant role.

Singapore seems to have the most-market-oriented system in the world.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, George Shultz and Vidar Jorgensen explain that the system is successful because people spend their own money.

If the U.S. wants lower costs, better outcomes, faster innovation and universal access, it should look to the country that has the closest thing to a functioning health-care market: Singapore. The city-state spends only 5% of GDP on medical care but has considerably better health outcomes than the U.S. …What does Singapore do that’s so effective? …All health-care providers in Singapore must post their prices and outcomes so buyers can judge the cost and quality. …Singaporeans are required to fund HSAs through a system called MediSave and to purchase catastrophic health insurance. As a result, patients spend their own money on health care and get to pocket any savings. …The combination of transparency and financial incentives has led to price and quality competition so intense that health-care costs are 75% lower in Singapore than in the U.S. …Singapore’s system of health-care finance shouldn’t seem foreign to Americans, nor should we doubt that it could work here. The U.S. has already seen that the combination of competition and price transparency can be successful: Witness the falling prices for Lasik and cosmetic surgery, which aren’t covered by insurance.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to share this OECD data showing that almost all other member nations are better than the United States on this issue.

No wonder heathcare is more expensive in the United States.

P.S. There’s also more government spending on healthcare in the United States, per capita, than there is in almost every other nation.

P.P.S. Government-created third-party payer also has led to higher costs and widespread inefficiency in higher education.

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The Congressional Budget Office released it’s 2020 Long-Term Budget Outlook yesterday.

Almost everybody has focused on CBO’s projections for record levels of red ink. And it is worrisome that debt is heading to Greek/Japanese levels (especially if the folks who buy government bonds think American politicians are more like Greek politicians rather than Japanese politicians).

But what should really have us worried, both in the short run and the long run, is that the burden of government spending is on an upward trajectory.

CBO has some charts showing that federal government spending will consume more than 30 percent of GDP by 2050, assuming the budget is left on autopilot.

But I dug into CBO’s database and created my own chart because I think it does a much better job of illustrating our problem.

As you can see, the problem is that government spending is projected to grow too fast, violating the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

The solution to this problem is very simple.

We need spending restraint, ideally enforced by some sort of spending cap.

And if we control the growth of spending (preferably so that it grows no more than the rate of inflation), the projections for ever-rising levels of red ink will disappear.

In other words, you can get rid of symptoms (red ink) when you cure the underlying disease (big government).

P.S. Given all the profligacy over the past year, you won’t be surprised to learn that this year’s long-run forecast from CBO is more depressing than last year’s forecast.

P.P.S. While the solution is simple, it’s not easy. Restraining the growth of spending – especially in the long run – will require entitlement reforms, especially for Medicare and Medicaid.

P.P.P.S. Tax increases almost certainly would make a bad situation even worse by weakening the economy and encouraging more spending.

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If you’re a curmudgeonly libertarian like me, you don’t like big government because it impinges on individual liberty.

Most people, however, get irked with government for the practical reason that it costs so much and fails to provide decent services.

California is a good example. Or perhaps we should say bad example.

The Tax Foundation recently shared data on the relative cost of living in various metropolitan areas. Looking at the 12-most expensive places to live, 75 percent of them are in California.

So what do people get in exchange for living in such expensive areas?

They get great weather and scenery, but they also get lousy government.

Victor Davis Hanson wrote for National Review about his state’s decline.

Might it also have been smarter not to raise income taxes on top tiers to over 13 percent? After 2017, when high earners could no longer write off their property taxes and state income taxes, the real state-income-tax bite doubled. So still more of the most productive residents left the state. Yet if the state gets its way, raising rates to over 16 percent and inaugurating a wealth tax, there will be a stampede. It is not just that the upper middle class can no longer afford coastal living at $1,000 a square foot and $15,000–$20,000 a year in “low” property taxes. The rub is more about what they get in return: terrible roads, crumbling bridges, human-enhanced droughts, power blackouts, dismal schools that rank near the nation’s bottom, half the nation’s homeless, a third of its welfare recipients, one-fifth of the residents living below the poverty level — and more lectures from the likes of privileged Gavin Newsom on the progressive possibilities of manipulating the chaos. California enshrined the idea that the higher taxes become, the worse state services will be.

Even regular journalists have noticed something is wrong.

In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Kelly, Reed Albergotti, Brady Dennis and Scott Wilson discuss the growing dissatisfaction with California life.

California has become a warming, burning, epidemic-challenged and expensive state, with many who live in sophisticated cities, idyllic oceanfront towns and windblown mountain communities thinking hard about the viability of a place many have called home forever. For the first time in a decade, more people left California last year for other states than arrived. …for many of California’s 40 million residents, the California Dream has become the California Compromise, one increasingly challenging to justify, with…a thumb-on-the-scales economy, high taxes… California is increasingly a service economy that pays a far larger share of its income in taxes and on housing and food. …Three years ago, state lawmakers approved the nation’s second-highest gasoline tax, adding more than 47 cents to the price of a gallon. …service workers in particular are…paying far more as a share of their income on fuel just to stay employed. …A poll conducted late last year by the University of California at Berkeley found that more than half of California voters had given “serious” or “some” consideration to leaving the state because of the high cost of housing, heavy taxation or its political culture. …Business is booming for Scott Fuller, who runs a real estate relocation business. Called Leaving the Bay Area and Leaving SoCal, the company helps people ready to move away from the state’s two largest metro areas sell their homes and find others.

Niall Ferguson opines for Bloomberg about the Golden State’s outlook.

As my Hoover Institution colleague Victor Davis Hanson put it last month, California is “the progressive model of the future: a once-innovative, rich state that is now a civilization in near ruins.”… It’s not that California politicians don’t know how to spend money. Back in 2007, total state spending was $146 billion. Last year it was $215 billion. …the tax system is one of the most progressive, with a 13.3% top tax rate on incomes above $1 million — and that’s no longer deductible from the federal tax bill as it used to be. …And there’s worse to come. The latest brilliant ideas in Sacramento are to raise the top income rate up to 16.8% and to levy a wealth tax (0.4% on personal fortunes over $30 million) that you couldn’t even avoid paying if you left the state. (The proposal envisages payment for up to 10 years after departure to a lower-tax state.) It is a strange place that seeks to repel the rich while making itself a magnet for illegal immigrants… And the results of all this progressive policy? A poverty boom. California now has 12% of the nation’s population, but over 30% of its welfare recipients. …according to a new Census Bureau report, which takes housing and other costs into account, the real poverty rate in California is 17.2%, the highest of any state. …But that’s not all. The state’s public schools rank 37th in the country… Health care and pension costs are unsustainable. …people eventually vote with their feet. From 2007 until 2016, about five million people moved to California but six million moved out to other states. For years before that, the newcomers were poorer than the leavers. This net exodus is surging in 2020. …Now we know the true meaning of Calexit. It’s not secession. It’s exodus.

It’s not just high taxes and poor services.

George Will indicts California’s politicians for fomenting racial discord in his Washington Post column.

California…progressives…have placed on November ballots Proposition 16 to repeal the state constitution’s provision…forbidding racial preferences in public education, employment and contracting. Repeal, which would repudiate individual rights in favor of group entitlements, is part of a comprehensive California agenda to make everything about race, ethnicity and gender. …Proposition 16 should be seen primarily as an act of ideological aggression, a bold assertion that racial and gender quotas — identity politics translated into a spoils system — should be forthrightly proclaimed and permanently practiced… California already requires that by the end of 2021 some publicly traded companies based in the state must have at least three women on their boards of directors… And by 2022, boards with nine or more directors must include at least three government-favored minorities. …Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation requiring all 430,000 undergraduates in the California State University system to take an “ethnic studies” course, and there may soon be a similar mandate for all high school students. “Ethnic studies” is an anodyne description for what surely will be, in the hands of woke “educators,” grievance studies.

Several years ago, I crunched some numbers to show California’s gradual decline.

But there was probably no need for those calculations. All we really need to understand is that people are “voting with their feet” against the Golden State.

Simply stated, productive people are paying too much of a burden thanks to excessive spending, excessive taxes, and excessive regulation.

So they’re leaving.

P.S. Many Californians are moving to the Lone Star State, and if you want data comparing Texas and California, click here, here, herehere, and here.

P.P.S. Some folks in California started talking about secession after Trump’s election. Now that the state’s politicians are seeking a bailout, I expect that talk has disappeared.

P.P.S. My favorite California-themed jokes can be found here, here, and here.

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Earlier this month, as part of my ongoing series about convergence and divergence, I wrote about why South Korea has grown so much faster than Brazil.

My main conclusion is that nations need decent policy to prosper, and Johan Norberg shares a similar perspective in this video.

Let’s see what academic researchers have to say about this topic.

In an article for the Journal of Economic Literature, Paul Johnson and Chris Papageorgiou have a somewhat pessimistic assessment about the outlook for lower-income countries.

In its simplest form, convergence suggests that poor countries have the propensity to grow faster than the rich, so to eventually catch up to them. …there is a broad consensus of no evidence supporting absolute convergence in cross-country per capita incomes—that is poor countries do not seem to be unconditionally catching up to rich ones. …Our reading of the evidence…is that recent optimism in favor of rapid and sustainable convergence is unfounded. …with the exception of a few countries in Asia that exhibited transformational growth, most of the economic achievements in developing economies have been the result of removing inefficiencies, especially in governance and in political institutions. But as is now well known, these are merely one-off level effects.

Here’s a table from their study.

As you can see, high-income countries (HIC) generally grew faster last century, which is evidence for divergence.

But in the 2000s, there was better performance by middle-income countries (MIC) and low-income countries (LIC).

That seems to be evidence that the “Washington Consensus” for pro-market policies generated good results.

Indeed, maybe I’m just trying to be hopeful, but I like to think that the last several decades have provided a roadmap for convergence. Simply stated, nations have to shift toward capitalism.

For another point of view, Dev Patel, Justin Sandefur and Arvind Subramanian have a somewhat upbeat article published by the Center for Global Development.

…the basic facts about economic growth around the world turned completely upside down a quarter century ago—and the literature doesn’t seem to have noticed. …While unconditional convergence was singularly absent in the past, there has been unconditional convergence, beginning (weakly) around 1990 and emphatically for the last two decades. …Looking at the 43 countries the World Bank classified as “low income” in 1990, 65 percent have grown faster than the high-income average since 1990. The same is true for 82 percent of the 62 middle-income countries circa 1990. …It’s not “just” China and India, home to a third of the world’s population on their own: developing countries on average are outpacing the developed world.

Here’s a pair of graphs from the article. On the left, we see nations of all income levels grew at roughly the same rate between 1960 and today.

But if we look on the right at the data from 2000 until the present, low-income and middle-income countries are enjoying faster growth.

That article, however, doesn’t include much discussion of why there’s been some convergence.

So let’s cite one more study.

In a report for the European Central Bank, Juan Luis Diaz del Hoyo, Ettore Dorrucci, Frigyes Ferdinand Heinz, and Sona Muzikarova look for lessons from European Union nations.

…sound policymaking plays a key role in the attainment of real convergence, primarily via adequate measures and reforms at national level. …for a given euro area Member State to achieve economic convergence it needs to improve its institutional quality, i.e. that of those institutions and governance standards that facilitate growth… some euro area countries have not met expectations in terms of delivery of sustainable convergence… in the period 1999-2016 income convergence towards the EU average occurred and was significant in some of the late euro adopters (the Baltics and Slovakia), but not in the south of Europe. …Several low-income euro area members have, in fact, only just maintained (Slovenia and Spain) or even increased (Greece, Cyprus and Portugal) their income gaps in respect of the EU average.

Let’s close with two charts from the ECB study.

First, look at this chart tracking the relative performances of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland compared to the average of Western European nations.

What stands out is that Ireland went from being a relatively poor nation to a relatively rich nation.

Needless to say, I would argue that Ireland’s dramatic improvement is closely correlated with a shift toward free markets that began in the 1980s.

Indeed, Ireland currently has the 10th-highest level of economic freedom for all countries.

Next, here’s a chart reviewing how various European nations have performed since 1999.

Ireland grew the fastest, given where it started. But notice how Slovakia and the Baltic nations also have been star performers.

So the nations that have adopted free-market reforms have grown faster than one might expect based on convergence theory.

And you won’t be surprised to see that the nations that have lagged – Greece and Italy – are infamous for statist policies and an unwillingness to reform.

The bottom line – assuming you want to improve the lives of people in poor nation – is that the world needs more capitalism and less government.

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I’ve been writing about the benefits of school choice for a long time, largely because government schools are becoming ever-more expensive while produced ever-more dismal outcomes.

But even I was surprised to see this tweet, which shows how so many parents in New York City seek alternative educational opportunities for their children.

What makes these numbers so shocking is that parents are forced to pay for government schools. So when they opt for alternatives such as private schools, they’re paying twice.

But they decide the extra cost is justified because they know government-run schools don’t do a good job (and those failures have become even more apparent because of coronavirus).

For instance, David Harsanyi indicts government schooling in an article for National Review.

“Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. …State-run schools have undercut two fundamental conditions of a healthy tolerant society. First, they’ve created millions of civic illiterates who are disconnected from long-held communal values and national identity. Second, they’ve exacerbated the very inequalities that trigger the tearing apart of fissures. …No institution has fought harder to preserve segregated communities than the average teachers’ union. …Prosperous Americans already enjoy school choice — and not merely because they can afford private schools. …This entire dynamic is driven by the antiquated notion that the best way to educate kids is to throw them into the nearest government building. It’s the teachers’ unions that safeguard these fiefdoms through racketeering schemes: First they funnel taxpayer dollars to the political campaigns of allies who, when elected, return the favor by protecting union monopolies and supporting higher taxes that fund unions and ultimately political campaigns. …most poor parents, typically black or Hispanic, are compelled to send their kids to inferior schools… Joe Biden says he’ll create not a child-oriented Department of Education but a “teacher-oriented Department of Education.” By teachers, Biden means unions. …It’s likely that left-wing ideologues run your school district. They decide what your children learn. …The embedded left-wing nature of big school districts is so normalized that parents rarely say a word. …a voucher system creates opportunities for all kinds of students, not just wealthy ones.

I suppose it should explicitly stated that those opportunities would produce better results, both for taxpayers and for kids.

In an article for the American Institute for Economic Research, Gregory van Kipnis compares government schools and private schools.

Only when there is a monopoly are we denied choice. The negative consequences of that are well known… Monopolies produce goods and services at a higher price and a lower quality than would be obtained in a competitive market. That is certainly the case with public education. …society should be interested in data about the costs and outcomes of different approaches to education, namely public versus private schools, and how this data should affect our choices and behavior.

And what does the data tell us?

…currently (as of 2018), a public school education in the US costs 89% more than private education; that is, $14,653 for a public school and $7,736 for a private education. The high relative cost of public school education has persisted since the earliest period for which the data has been collected – 1965 (Chart 1a). …Private education is significantly less expensive.

Here’s the chart showing that government schools are far more expensive.

This raises a separate question: Are government schools more expensive because they’re producing better results?

Nope.

While the generally accepted knowledge is that private education produces better results than public school education, …Chart 4…shows the trends and levels in the composite ACT test results (meaning for math and reading combined) for the period 2001-2014, for private, public and homeschooled children. …The results speak for themselves – private schools test at a significantly higher level than public schools, and the gap is widening.

Here’s a chart showing the difference.

So what’s the bottom line?

Consumers of any product know they get better outcomes, as measured by quality and price, if the product is offered in competitive markets. This is true even in markets that have only limited competition. Any competition is better than none. Just as that principle is true in the markets for cars and cafes, so it is true in the market for educational services. …It is manifestly cheaper to get a private education and get a far better education in a private school. The problem holding back the growth in private education is that you have to pay twice to get it. The economics and facts support the logic of freeing parents to obtain private education and alternative public education for their children. To further facilitate this decision, parents should be given vouchers and credits equal to the cost of public school in their area, which they can freely use to fund their choice of better education in the private sector.

Amen. School choices produces better educational outcomes and saves money for taxpayers.

Hard to argue with the data (unless, of course, your motive is to appease teacher unions).

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New Jersey is a tragic example of state veering in the wrong direction.

Back in the 1960s, it was basically like New Hampshire, with no income tax and no sales tax. State politicians then told voters in the mid-1960s that a sales tax was needed, in part to reduce property taxes. Then state politicians told voters in the mid-1970s that an income tax was needed, again in part to reduce property taxes.

So how did that work out?

Well, the state now has a very high sales tax and a very high income tax. And you won’t be surprised that it still have very high property taxes – arguably the worst in the nation according to the Tax Foundation.

But you have to give credit to politicians from the Garden State.

They are very innovative at coming up with ways to make a bad situation even worse.

In an article for City Journal, Steven Malanga reviews the current status of New Jersey’s misguided fiscal policies.

Relative to the size of its budget, New Jersey’s borrowing is by far the largest. Jersey plans to cover most of the cost of its deficit with debt by tapping a last-resort Federal Reserve lending program. New Jersey is already the nation’s most fiscally unsound state, according to the Institute for Truth in Accounting. It bears some $234 billion in debt, including about $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. A recent Pew study estimated that, between 2003 and 2017, the state spent $1 for every 91 cents in revenue it collected. …Before the pandemic, Murphy had proposed a $40.7 billion budget for fiscal 2021, a spending increase of 5.4 percent. …The administration has taken only marginal steps to reduce spending by, for instance, delaying water infrastructure projects. Many other cuts Murphy has announced involve simply shelving plans to spend more money.

The very latest development is that the state’s politicians want to exacerbate New Jersey’s uncompetitive tax system by extending the state’s top tax rate of 10.75 percent to a larger group of taxpayers.

The New York Times reports on a new tax scheme concocted by the Governor and state legislature.

New Jersey officials agreed on Thursday to make the state one of the first to adopt a so-called millionaires tax… Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, announced a deal with legislative leaders to increase state taxes on income over $1 million by nearly 2 percentage points, giving New Jersey one of the highest state tax rates on wealthy people in the country. …The new tax in New Jersey…is expected to generate an estimated $390 million this fiscal year… With every call for a new tax comes criticism from Republicans and some business leaders who warn that higher taxes will lead to an exodus of affluent residents.

As is so often the case, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial does a good job of nailing the issue.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and State Senate President Steve Sweeney struck a deal on Thursday to raise the state’s top marginal tax rate to 10.75% from 8.97% on income of more than $1 million. Two years ago, Democrats increased the top rate to 10.75% on taxpayers making more than $5 million. …New Jersey’s bleeding budget can’t afford to lose any millionaires. In 2018 New Jersey lost a net $3.2 billion in adjusted gross income to other states, including $2 billion to zero-income tax Florida, according to IRS data. More will surely follow now.

The WSJ is right.

As shown by this map, there’s already been a steady exodus of people from the Garden State. More worrisome is that the people leaving tend to have higher-than-average incomes (and it’s been that way for a while since New Jersey’s been pursuing bad policy for a while).

I’ll add one additional point to this discussion. One of the best features of the 2017 tax reform is that there’s now a limit on deducting state and local taxes when filing with the IRS.

This means that people living in high-tax jurisdiction such as California, New York, and Illinois (and, of course, New Jersey) now bear the full burden of state taxes.

In other words, New Jersey’s politicians are pursuing a very foolish policy at a time when federal tax law now makes bad state policy even more suicidal.

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Every single economic school of thought agrees with the proposition that investment is a key factor in driving wages and growth.

Even foolish concepts such as socialism and Marxism acknowledge this relationship, though they want the government to be in charge of deciding where to invest and how much to invest (an approach that has a miserable track record).

Another widely shared proposition is that higher tax rates will discourage whatever is being taxed. Even politicians understand this notion, for instance, when arguing for higher taxes on tobacco.

To be sure, economists will argue about the magnitude of the response (will a higher tax rate cause a big effect, medium effect, or a small effect?).

But they’ll all agree that a higher tax on something will lead to less of that thing.

Which is why I always argue that we need the lowest-possible tax rates on the activities – work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship – that create wealth and prosperity.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that Joe Biden, as part of his platform in the presidential race, has embraced class-warfare taxation.

And it’s even more disappointing that he specifically supports policies that will impose a much higher tax burden on capital formation.

How much higher? Kyle Pomerleau of the American Enterprise Institute churned through Biden’s proposals to see what it would mean for tax rates on investment and business activity.

Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has proposed several tax increases that focus on raising taxes on business and capital income. Taxing business and capital income can affect saving and investment decisions by reducing the return to these activities and distorting the allocation across different assets, forms of financing, and business forms. Under current law, the weighted average marginal effective tax rate (METR) on business assets is 19.6 percent… Biden’s tax proposals would raise the METR on business investment in the United States by 7.8 percentage points to 27.5 percent in 2021. The effective tax rate would rise on most assets and new investment in all industries. In addition to increasing the overall tax burden on business investment, Biden’s proposals would increase the bias in favor of debt-financed and noncorporate investment over equity-financed and corporate investment.

Here’s the most illuminating visual from Kyle’s report.

The first row of data shows that the effective tax rate just by almost 8 percentage points.

I also think it’s important to focus on the last two rows. Notice that the tax burden on equity increases by a lot while the tax burden on debt actually drops slightly.

This is very foolish since almost all economists will acknowledge that it’s a bad idea to create more risk for an economy by imposing a preference for debt (indeed, mitigating this bias was one of the best features of the 2017 tax reform).

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Regular readers know that I give Trump mixed grades on economic policy.

He gets good marks on issues such as taxes and regulation, but bad marks in other areas, most notably spending and trade.

Which is why I’ve sometimes asserted that there has been only a small improvement in the economy’s performance under Trump compared to Obama.

But I may have to revisit that viewpoint. The Census Bureau released its annual report yesterday on Income and Poverty in the United States. The numbers for 2019 were spectacularly good, with the White House taking a big victory lap.

Here are the three charts that merit special attention.

First, we have the numbers on inflation-adjusted median household income. You can see big jumps for all demographic groups.

Next, here’s a look at whether Americans are getting richer or poorer over time.

As you can from this chart, an ever-larger share are earning high incomes (a point I made last month, but this new data is even better).

Last but not least, here’s the data on the poverty rate.

Once again, remarkably good numbers, with all demographic groups enjoying big improvements.

We’ll see some bad news, of course, when the 2020 data is released at this point next year. But that’s the result of coronavirus.

So let’s focus on whether Trump deserves credit for 2019, especially since I got several emails yesterday from Trump supporters asking whether I’m willing to reassess my views on his policies.

At the risk of sounding petulant, my answer is no. I don’t care how good the data looks in any particular year. Excessive government spending is never a good idea, and it’s also never a good idea to throw sand in the gears of global trade.

But perhaps we should rethink whether the positive effects of some policies are stronger and more immediate while the negative effects of other policies are weaker and more gradual.

I’ll close with two cautionary notes about “sugar high” economics.

For what it’s worth, we’re not going to resolve this debate because coronavirus has been a huge, exogenous economic shock.

Though if (or when) the United States ever gets to a tipping point of too much debt, there may be some retroactive regret that Trump (along with Obama and Bush) viewed the federal budget as a party fund.

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Back in 2017, I shared this video explaining why capitalism is unquestionably the best way to help poor people.

I’m recycling the video today because it’s a great introduction for a discussion about how best to help poor people.

As part of my Eighth Theorem of Government, I made the point that it’s wrong to fixate on inequality. Instead, the goal should be poverty reduction.

And the best way to help the poor, as I noted when criticizing Pope Francis’ support for statism in a BBC interview, is free markets and limited government.

Now we have additional evidence for this approach thanks to a new study from the Hoover Institution.

Authored by Ed Lazear, former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, it uses hard data from Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom to see how poor people do in capitalist nations compared to socialist nations.

If you’re pressed for time, here are the key passages from the introduction.

This study analyzes income data from 162 countries over multiple decades, coupled with measures of economic freedom, size of government, and transfers to determine how various parts of society fare under capitalism and socialism. The main conclusion is that the poor, defined as having income in the lowest 10 percent of a country’s income distribution, do significantly better in economies with free markets, competition, and low state ownership. More impressive is that moving from a heavy emphasis on government to a free market enhances the income of the poor substantially. …Changing freedom from the Mexico level to the Singapore level is predicted to raise the income of the poor by about 40 percent. All income groups benefit from the change, but the change typically helps the poor more than other income groups.

For those interested, let’s now dig into the details.

The study specifically looks at the degree to which state ownership (i.e., textbook socialism) has an impact on income.

As one might suspect, more state ownership means lower income.

A number of measures of free-market capitalism and socialism have been suggested. The analysis starts by examining the metric that most closely matches the dictionary definition of socialism, namely, the amount of state ownership of capital… The basic approach in this section is to examine the relation of income of three groups to state ownership. …All coefficients on the state ownership index are positive, strong, and statistically significant. For example, using the coefficient in column 4, a one standard deviation increase in private ownership increases median income by about 19 percent of the mean value of the log of median income. Also interesting is that the lowest income groups benefit as much or more from private ownership as the highest income groups. …The cross-country correlation between private ownership and income ten years in the future is positive and strong. It is also true that median income seems to rise over time within a country as the country moves toward more private ownership and less state ownership.

The study highlights several interesting examples.

For instance, it shows that poor people immensely benefited from China’s partial shift to capitalism, even though inequality increased (something I pointed out a few years ago).

Here’s the data on Chile, which shows both rich and poor benefited from that nation’s shift to capitalism.

By the way, I have several columns (here, here, here, and here) documenting how poor people have been the big winners from Chile’s pro-market reforms.

Next we have the example of South Korea.

That data is especially powerful, by the way, when you compare South Korea and North Korea.

Last (and, in this case, least), we have the data from the unfortunate nation of Venezuela.

Chavez’s family personally gained from socialism, but this chart shows how the rest of the nation has stagnated.

So what’s the bottom line?

Lazear summarizes his results.

…there is no evidence that, as a general matter, high-income groups benefit more from a move toward capitalism than low-income groups. The effect of changing state ownership and economic freedom on income is not larger for the rich than for the poor. Second, income growth is positively correlated across deciles. The situation is closer to a rising tide lifting all boats than to the fat man becoming fat by making the thin man thin. Finally, there is no consistent evidence across the large number of countries and time periods examined of any strong and widespread link between income growth and inequality. There are examples, like China, where income growth was coupled with large increases in inequality, but others like Chile, where strong income growth came about without much change in inequality, and South Korea, where inequality declined slightly as economic freedom and income grew over time.

Amen. This analysis underscores my oft-made argument that inequality is irrelevant and that policy makers instead should have a laser-like focus on economic growth.

Assuming, of course, that they want poor people to climb the economic ladder to prosperity.

P.S. The Lazear study points out that Scandinavian nations are definitely not socialist based on measures of state ownership.

Some might define socialist economies as merely being those that have high levels of redistribution, meaning high taxes and transfers. …It is certainly true that the Scandinavian countries have higher taxes and transfers than non-Scandinavian countries… Scandinavian countries all have low state ownership index values…and high values of the economic freedom index. The values for Scandinavia look much more like those for the United States than they do for pre-1985 China or post-2000 Venezuela. …Perhaps a more accurate description of Scandinavia is that the countries rely primarily on private ownership and markets but have chosen to have a large government transfer program, which implies not only high transfers but also high taxes.

I’ll simply add that the high transfers and high taxes have negative consequences for Scandinavian nations, but those countries at least have very pro-market policies in other areas to compensate for the damage caused by bad fiscal policy.

P.P.S. For my friends on the left who may suspect that Lazear cherry-picked his examples. I’ll simply challenge them to show a contrary example.

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The latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World has been released by the Fraser Institute. The good news is that the United States is in the top 10 (we dropped as low as #18 during Obama’s first term).

The bad news is that Australia jumped in front of the United States, so America is now #6 instead of #5 like last year.

Here are the 20 jurisdictions in the world with the highest levels of economic liberty.

Here are some of the highlights from the report.

Hong Kong and Singapore, as usual, occupy the top two positions. The next highest scoring nations are New Zealand, Switzerland, United States, Australia, Mauritius, Georgia, Canada, and Ireland. The rankings of some other major countries are Japan (20th), Germany (21st), Italy (51st), France (58th), Mexico (68th), Russia (89th), India (105th), Brazil (105th), and China (124th). The 10 lowest-rated countries are: Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Republic of Congo, Algeria, Iran, Angola, Libya, Sudan, and, lastly, Venezuela.

It’s not exactly a surprise that Venezuela is in last place, though keep in mind that a few basket-case nations aren’t included in the rankings because of inadequate data (most notably, North Korea and Cuba).

Some people may be surprised that Hong Kong is still #1, but there’s a good (albeit temporary) reason.

Between 1997 and 2018, there was no evidence of significant policy changes in Hong Kong as the result of the 1997 establishment of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region within China. Our data indicate that there have not been any major changes in tax and spending policy, monetary stability, or regulatory policy. In fact, Hong Kong’s 2018 rating of 8.94 is its highest since the financial crisis in 2008. However, it will be surprising if the apparent increase in the insecurity of property rights and the weakening of the rule of law caused by the interventions of the Chinese government in 2019 and 2020 do not result in lower scores

For those interested in the United States, here are the scores for the five major components.

For what it’s worth, I think American monetary policy should be ranked lower, but I admit that’s a subjective opinion that can’t be quantified (at least not yet).

Our worst score is for trade. Though that’s not just the fault of Trump. Yes, he’s caused a decline, but the U.S. score has been on a downward trajectory for almost 20 years.

Speaking of Trump, readers who get upset by my periodic criticisms of the President (such as what I wrote yesterday) may be interested in knowing that the U.S. now has a lower score (8.22 out of 10) than it did in Obama’s last year (8.32 out of 10).

P.S. Last but not least, here’s a map showing which nations are in various categories. All you really need to know is that it’s good to be blue and bad to be red.

P.P.S. China’s low score explains why I don’t think there’s any danger of that nation becoming an economic powerhouse (a point I first made back in 2010). At least not until and unless President Xi has the wisdom to allow a second wave of pro-growth reform.

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During the Obama years, I frequently criticized the Administration’s bad policy choices. On a wide range of issues.

But I also expressed disappointment when President Obama arbitrarily and unilaterally decided to override or overlook laws that were inconvenient to his agenda.

Or when he asserted powers that didn’t exist.

Simply stated, I care about the rule of law.

And I care about the rule of law regardless of which political party holds power.

Which is why I’m disgusted that the Trump Administration has stretched the law beyond the breaking point so that the Centers for Disease Control can run roughshod over private rental contracts.

In his column for the Washington Post, George Will observes the CDC is engaged in an unprecedented power grab.

…the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…this month asserted a power to prohibit — through the end of 2020, but actually for as long as the CDC deems “necessary” — the eviction of private tenants from privately owned residences because of unpaid rent. This, even though eviction levels have been below normal during the lockdown. The CDC’s order protects tenants earning up to $99,000 — almost quadruple the official poverty line of $26,200 for a family of four. Or, for those filing joint tax returns, tenants earning up to $198,000, who are in the top quintile of U.S. households. …Noncompliant landlords can be fined up to $100,000 and incarcerated for up to a year. …A regulation promulgated by the executive branch grants vast — almost limitless, the CDC clearly thinks — discretion to an executive branch bureaucrat, the CDC director… And, if today’s director is correct, the director is authorized to curtail some property rights and abrogate some contracts nationwide, to suspend some state laws and strip state courts of jurisdiction in eviction cases. …The CDC presents all this as just another anti-infection protocol. Try, however, to imagine an activity or legal arrangement that the CDC, citing the regulation, could not overturn by fiat in the context of even a seasonal infectious disease such as the flu. Ilya Somin, law professor at George Mason University and another Cato adjunct scholar, notes: “Pretty much any economic transaction or movement of people and goods could potentially spread disease in some way.”

Christian Britschgi opines for Reason about the Trump Administration’s assault on property rights.

…the CDC’s eviction moratorium is an excellent example of how a patchwork of extreme, temporary policy interventions intended to stem the coronavirus pandemic has created a self-perpetuating justification for expanding government power across the board. …Over time, the economic damage and mass unemployed caused by a prolonged pandemic and continually extended shelter-in-place orders have fueled justifications for extending and expanding eviction moratoriums. After all, how can someone be expected to pay the rent if they aren’t legally allowed to work? Now a federal eviction moratorium covering all rental properties is being justified as necessary to ensure compliance with shelter-in-place orders. …the CDC’s order..ratchets up the government’s power in a way that won’t be easily undone.

Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, Brad Polumbo explains why the CDC’s actions are so worrisome.

Under the direction of the Trump administration, the CDC instituted a unilateral order halting many evictions. It essentially nationalizes millions of private rental properties and strips landowners of their basic rights. …For legal justification, the Trump administration cites one vague law that says during a pandemic the CDC director “may take such measures to prevent such spread of the diseases as he/she deems reasonably necessary, including inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, and destruction of animals or articles believed to be sources of infection.” ….Across the country, millions of landlords will have tenants occupying their property and have no way to force them to pay rent or remove them if they won’t. …the federal government is trampling over private contracts and essentially seizing all affected rental properties as the domain of the state. …

Brad also makes the all-important point that the CDC’s regulation will actually make rental housing more expensive in the long run (sort of like the way rent control backfires).

…the CDC’s overreach will undoubtedly have severe economic consequences. This move will worsen the housing crisis in the long-run and make housing more expensive for everyone by decreasing supply. Many landlords will be unable to make their mortgage and property tax payments without rental income or any remedy for nonpayment. This will result in them losing their property and its eventual removal from the market. …this unprecedented invasion of contract rights and private property is sure to discourage future would-be landlords from renting out their property or entering the market. The long-term impact will be less housing overall, which means higher prices.

Congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky is one of the nation’s most principled lawmakers.

Here’s his succinct analysis of what just happened.

Though I have a slight disagreement with Massie’s tweet.

This latest power grab by the federal government isn’t socialism. That would involve the government owning and operating rental properties.

Under the CDC edict, rental properties are still privately owned. It’s just that government controls how the property is used.

That’s a different economic system, as Thomas Sowell has explained.

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Politicians often support “industrial policy,” which means they get to grant special favors to well-connected companies or industries.

But as explained by Professor Burton Folsom, this approach didn’t work very will in the 1800s.

It’s not surprising, of course, that politicians like having the power to grant favors. It makes them feel important.

But such policies don’t work. At least if our measure of success includes things like competitiveness and efficiency. Or of if we care about the best interests of consumers and taxpayers.

Which is why is better to be on the correct side of this spectrum. In other words, as far from Soviet-style central planning as possible (I used to cite Hong Kong as an example of laissez-faire, but that may no longer be accurate).

By the way, the video also makes a good point about how the United States was not a laissez-faire paradise back in the 1800s.

While we didn’t have an income tax or a welfare state, there were other forms of intervention, as illustrated by the video, as well as lots of protectionism and regulation.

And don’t forget slavery, which was an especially grotesque anti-market policy.

The bottom line is that only politicians benefit when government has more power over the economy.

For the rest of us, the lesson to be learned is that government intervention doesn’t work. Not in the 1800s. Not in the 1900s. And not in this century, either.

If we want more prosperity, we should stick with the tried-and-true recipe for growth.

P.S. Professor Folsom also narrated a video showing how government intervention failed in the 1800s (railroads) and early 1900s (airplanes).

P.P.S. It’s especially disappointing that some self-styled conservatives are supporting industrial policy since – in practice – it means awful policies like Solyndra-style handouts and power-grab schemes like the Green New Deal.

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It’s not easy to identify the worst international bureaucracy.

As you can see, it’s hard to figure out which bureaucracy is the worst.

I’ve solved this dilemma by allowing a rotation. Today, the OECD is at the top of my list.

That’s because the top tax official at that Paris-based bureaucracy, Pascal Saint-Amans, has a new article about goals for future tax policy.

…policy flexibility and agility may be what is needed to help restore confidence. …Governments should seize the opportunity to build a greener, more inclusive and more resilient economy. Rather than simply returning to business as usual, the goal should be to “build back better” and address some of the structural weaknesses that the crisis has laid bare.

So how do we get a “more resilient economy” with less “structural weakness”?

According to the bureaucrats at the OECD, we achieve that goal with higher taxes. I’m not joking. Here are some additional excerpts.

Today, taxes on polluting fuels are nowhere near the levels needed… Seventy percent of energy-related CO2 emissions from advanced and emerging economies are entirely untaxed.

Here’s a chart from the article showing how nations supposedly are under-taxing energy use.

But it’s not just energy taxes.

The OECD wants a bunch of other tax increases, including a digital tax deal that specifically targets America’s high-tech firms.

It’s also disturbing that the bureaucrats want higher taxes on “personal capital income,” particularly since even economists at the OECD have specifically warned that those types of taxes are particularly harmful to prosperity.

Fair burden sharing will also be central going forward. …consideration should be given to strengthening…social protection in the longer run. …Governments will need to find alternative sources of revenues. The taxation of property and personal capital income will have an important role to play… Rising pressure on public finances as well as increased demands for fair burden sharing should provide new impetus for reaching an agreement on digital taxation.

By the way, “social protection” is OECD-speak for redistribution spending. In other words, “fair burden sharing” means a bigger welfare state financed by ever-higher taxes.

The bureaucrats apparently think we should all be like Greece and Italy.

I want to close by revisiting the topic of environmental taxation. If you peruse the above chart, you’ll see that the OECD wants all nations to impose (at a minimum) a €30-per-ton tax on carbon.

What would that imply for American taxpayers? Well, if we extrapolate from estimates by the Tax Policy Center and Tax Foundation, that would be a tax increase of more than $400-per-year for every man, woman, and child in the United States. That’s $1600 of additional tax for each family of four.

P.S. The OECD has traditionally tailored its analysis to favor Democrats, but even I am surprised that Saint-Amans used the Biden campaign slogan of “build back better” in his column. I’m sure that was no accident. The bureaucrats at the OECD must be quite confident that Biden will win. Or they must feel confident that Republicans will be too stupid to exact any revenge if Trump prevails (probably a safe assumption since Republicans gave the bureaucracy lots of American tax dollars even after a top OECD official compared Trump to Hitler).

P.P.S. To add insult to injury, OECD bureaucrats get tax-free salaries, so they have a special exemption from the bad policies they want for the rest of us.

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With the election less than two months away, there’s a lot of discussion and debate about Trump’s performance.

I put together a report card last year showing that his economic policies have been a mixed bag, with good grades on tax and regulation, but bad grades on trade and spending.

Today, let’s focus specifically on fiscal issues and try to identify the best and worst changes that have occurred during his presidency.

Let’s start with the good news.

For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat conflicted between two different provisions of the 2017 tax reform.

I’m a huge fan of the cap on the state and local tax deduction. For years, I had been arguing that it was very foolish for the federal tax system to subsidize high-tax states.

So I was delighted that the 2017 law restricted this subsidy (and I’m further delighted that we’re already seeing a positive impact with people “voting with their feet” against states such as New York, Illinois, and California).

However, that reform is not permanent. Like many other provisions of that law, it automatically expires at the end of 2025.

Which is why I’m going to choose the lower corporate tax rate as Trump’s best policy. Not only is that reform permanent (at least until/unless Joe Biden takes office), but it was enormously important for American competitiveness since the United States used to have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

And the rate is still too high today, especially if you include the impact of state corporate tax rates, but at least the 2017 reform took a big step in the right direction.

And that big step is good news for jobs, wages, investment, and competitiveness.

Now for the bad news.

I could make the case that Trump’s overall spending increase is the problem.

Indeed, in a column for Reason, Matt Welch points out that Trump has not been a fiscal conservative.

The most traditional way to measure the size of government is to count how much money it spends. In Barack Obama’s last full fiscal year of 2016…, the federal government spent $3.85 trillion… In fiscal year 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a record amount of spending, the federal government was on course to cough up $4.79 trillion… So under Trump’s signature, before any true crisis hit, the annual price tag of government went up by $937 billion in less than four years—more than the $870 billion price hike Obama produced in an eight-year span… You can argue plausibly that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party will grow the government more. But the fact is, the guy railing against socialism…has grown spending faster than his predecessor and shown considerably less interest in confronting the entitlement bomb.

All of this is true, but I want to focus on specific policies, not just the overall spending performance.

Which is why I would argue that Trump’s worst fiscal policy is captured by this table from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

It shows what Trump promised compared to what he delivered and I’ve highlighted his awful record on non-defense discretionary spending (which is basically domestic spending other than entitlements). He promised $750 billion of reductions over 10 years and instead he saddled the American economy with $700 billion of additional increases.

P.S. Click here if you want background info on the different types of federal spending. But all you probably need to know is that many parts of the federal government that shouldn’t exist (Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, etc) get much of their funding from the non-defense discretionary budget.

P.P.S. Trump has failed to address entitlements, which is reckless, but that’s a sin of omission. The increase in non-defense discretionary is a sin of commission.

P.P.P.S. I also thought about listing Trump’s failure to follow through on his proposal to get rid of taxpayer subsidies for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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I’m a huge fan of school choice. Simply stated, private schools deliver far superior results for children compared to costly and bureaucratic government schools.

Moreover, given the way minorities are poorly served by the status quo, school choice should be the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

But what about charter schools, which are hybrid creatures. They’re government schools, but they’re largely independent of bureaucratic constraints, and they also have to compete for students, which means they face similar incentives and get to operate in a similar fashion to private schools.

I’ve never analyzed the degree to which these schools are successful, but I remember being stunned when I was writing last year about “National Education Week” and saw a map showing the incredibly high demand for charter schools from parents in poor areas of Washington, DC.

What did those parents know that I didn’t know?

Well, it turns out that they must know that charter schools are a much better option than regular government schools.

There’s some new research, just published by Education Next, by Professor Paul Peterson and Danish Shakeel of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance that looks at the comparative performance of charter schools.

Here’s a description of the study’s methodology.

…we track changes in student performance at charter and district schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests reading and math skills of a nationally representative sample of students every other year. We focus on trends in student performance from 2005 through 2017 to get a sense of the direction in which the district and charter sectors are heading. We also control for differences in students’ background characteristics. This is the first study to use this information to compare trend lines. Most prior research has compared the relative effectiveness of the charter and district sectors at a single point in time.

They wanted to investigate this topic because charter schools are increasingly popular.

School systems in 43 states and the District of Columbia now include charter schools, and in states like California, Arizona, Florida, and Louisiana, more than one in 10 public-school students attend them. In some big cities, those numbers are even larger: 45 percent in Washington, D.C., 37 percent in Philadelphia, and 15 percent in Los Angeles. Nationwide, charter enrollment tripled between 2005 and 2017, with the number of charter students growing from 2 percent to 6 percent of all public-school students. …one in three charter students is African American.

Here are the results.

As you can see, charter schools are attracting more students because parents want better outcomes.

Our analysis shows that student cohorts in the charter sector made greater gains from 2005 to 2017 than did cohorts in the district sector. The difference in the trends in the two sectors amounts to nearly an additional half-year’s worth of learning. The biggest gains are for African Americans and for students of low socioeconomic status attending charter schools. …The average gains by 4th- and 8th-grade charter students are approximately twice as large as those by students in district schools.

Here are the relevant charts from the study.

Here’s a chart showing that charter schools produce bigger gains in both math and reading, whether looking at students in 4th grade or 8th grade.

The next chart shows that black student are big beneficiaries when they can choose something other than a traditional government school

Last, but not least, our final visual looks at the gains for disadvantaged students.

This is all good news.

But there’s also some bad news.

Joe Biden wants to curry favor with teacher unions and that means he has come out against charter schools and other reforms that threaten the existing education monopoly.

This puts him to the left of Obama on this issue (as is the case on many issues). Heck, he’s also to the left of the Washington Post.

So if Biden wins, this could be very bad news for poor kids that don’t have any other educational alternatives.

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New York is in trouble from bad economic policy, especially excessive taxing and spending.

This is one of the reasons why there’s been a steady exodus of taxpayers from the Empire State.

The problem is especially acute for New York City, which has been suffering from Mayor Bill De Blasio’s hard-left governance.

To be sure, not all of the city’s problems are self-inflicted. The 2017 tax reform removed the IRS loophole for state and local tax payments, which means people living in places such as NYC no longer can artificially lower their tax liabilities. And the coronavirus hasn’t helped, either, particularly since Governor Cuomo bungled the state’s response.

The net result of bad policy and bad luck is that New York City has serious economic problems. And this leads, as one might expect, to serious fiscal problems.

What’s surprising, however, is that the normally left-leaning New York Times actually wrote an editorial pointing out that fiscal restraint is the only rational response.

New York is facing…a budget hole of more than $5 billion… Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked the State Legislature to give him the authority to borrow… But borrowing to meet operating expenses is especially hazardous. Cities that do so over and over again are at greater risk of the kind of bankruptcy faced by New York in the late 1970s and Detroit in 2013. …Before Mr. de Blasio adds billions to the city’s debt sheet…he needs to find savings. …The city’s budget grew under Mr. de Blasio, to $92 billion last year from about $73 billion in 2014, his first year in office. Complicating matters, the mayor has hired tens of thousands of employees over his tenure, adding significantly to the city’s pension and retirement obligations. …the mayor will have to be creative, make unpopular decisions and demand serious cost-saving measures… One way to begin is with a far stricter hiring freeze. …The mayor will need to do something he has rarely been able to: ask the labor unions to share in the sacrifice. …There are other cuts to be made.

Wow, this may be the first sensible editorial from the New York Times since it called for abolishing the minimum wage in 1987.*

Mayor De Blasio, needless to say, doesn’t want any form of spending restraint. Depending on the day, he either wants to tax-and-spend or borrow-and-spend.

Both of those approaches are misguided.

Kristin Tate explained in a column for the Hill that the middle class suffers most when class-warfare politicians such as De Blasio impose policies that penalize the private sector.

Finance giant JPMorgan is…slowly relocating many of its operations and jobs to lower tax locations in Ohio, Texas, and Delaware. The Lone Star State currently hosts 25,000 of its employees, and Texas will likely surpass the New York portion in coming years. The resulting move will harm the middle earners of New York far more than that of the wealthy… The exodus is part of a trend sweeping traditionally Democratic states over the last several years. …A whopping 1,800 businesses left California in 2016 alone, while manufacturing firm Honeywell moved its headquarters from New Jersey to greener pastures in North Carolina. …the primary losers in this formula are middle class workers. Between the loss of jobs and revenue, these states and cities press even harder on millions of middle income taxpayers to make up the difference. …Many of the Democrats…who are in charge of the blue state economic models…love to preach that their proposals will make the economy fairer by targeting the most productive members of their states and cities. However, the encompassing butterfly effect spells bad news for people like you and me. Every time you vote for a proposition or a candidate promising a repeat of bad policy, just remember that it will ultimately be the middle class that will pay the largest share.

My contribution to this discussion is to point out that New York City’s fiscal problems are the entirely predictable result of politicians spending too much money over an extended period of time.

In other words, they violated my Golden Rule.

Indeed, the burden of government spending has climbed more than three times faster than inflation during De Blasio’s time in office.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because excessive spending is the cause of every fiscal crisis (as I’ve noted when writing about Cyprus, Alaska, Ireland, Alberta, Greece, Puerto Rico, California, etc).

My final observation is that New York City’s current $5 billion budget shortfall would be a budget surplus of more than $6 billion if De Blasio and the other politicians had adopted a spending cap back in 2015 and limited budget increases to 2 percent annually.

*The New York Times also endorsed the flat tax in 1982, so there have been rare outbursts of common sense.

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Way back in early 2017, I warned in an interview that Trump would be a big spender (sadly, I was right). But I wasn’t being reflexively anti-Trump.

Here’s a clip from that same program where I speculated that Trump might have the political skill to win support from private-sector union workers.

In honor of Labor Day, let’s elaborate on this topic.

I’ll start with the political observation that Trump seems to do much better than other Republicans at getting support from working-class voters. Even workers who belong to unions (much to the dismay of their left-leaning leadership) appear to be disproportionately sympathetic.

Though it’s important to emphasize, as I said in the interview, the distinction between government bureaucrat unions and private-sector unions.

The unions that represent government employees have an incentive to lobby for bigger government since that means more lavishly paid members paying more dues. So those unions reflexively support higher taxes, more spending, and additional red tape.

Yet those are the policies that undermine private-sector job creation and reduce the competitiveness of companies operating in America. And that’s bad for all private workers – including those that belong to unions.

Which is why I speculated in the interview whether Trump would have the “political cunning” to convince those private-sector union members that their interests are not the same as those of bureaucrats.

I guess we’ll see on election day.

By the way, I have very mixed feelings on Trump’s strategy. Some of his policies are good (lower taxes and less red tap), but he also tries to appeal to union workers with policies that are bad (most notably, protectionism).

P.S. Feel free to enjoy some good cartoons mocking unionized bureaucrats by clicking hereherehere, and here.

P.P.S. I often tell my Republican friends that they’ll have more success appealing to private-sector union members if they come across as pro-market (which implies neutrality between employers and employees) rather than pro-business (which implies siding with employers).

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What’s the best economic news of the past 40 years?

Those are all good choices, but let’s not overlook Israel.

This chart from Economic Freedom of the World shows that economic freedom dramatically expanded in that nation between 1980 and 2000 (and has since gradually risen).

Israel’s shift away from the voluntary socialism of the kibbutz has paid big dividends. The nation has become far more prosperous.

I’ve already written how Israel benefited from supply-side reduction in tax rates.

Today, let’s learn about the country’s shift to private social security.

To find out what happened, let’s look at some excerpts from an article in Economics and Business Review. Authored by Moshe Manor and Joanna Ratajczak, it starts by observing there’s been a global shift to private social security systems.

The first paradigmatic shift towards a private pension system was performed in Chile in 1981 and had its followers in Latin America… The Chilean example inspired the World Bank to propose that such a shift should become a key element of the pension reform for postsocialist countries… The shift towards private pension schemes was assumed to meet demographic challenges and the secondary goals of the pension system, especially economic growth accomplished thanks to an acceleration of domestic savings.

This has been a very positive development for the countries that made the shift, by the way.

But let’s focus specifically on the reform in Israel. Here’s some of what the authors wrote.

Israel…abandoned a controlled economy and introduced the market economy only in the last three decades. …In the last 30 years Israel has faced many reforms of the pension system as part of broader economic reforms. …the stabilization programme allowed the Ministry of Finance (MOF) to start a series of structural changes, including pension reforms… The reasons for the reforms were not strictly economic but they also were based on neoliberal economic beliefs, political motives and international relations. …The USA feared Israel’s possible economic collapse and requested that the Israelis execute reforms designed according to Milton Friedman’s neoliberal principles in order to gain American economic support.

For what it’s worth, I’m in favor of “neoliberalism” when it’s defined as pro-market (which seems to be the case in many parts of the world).

Here’s a description of how the reform moved the country from a defined benefit model (often unfunded) to a funded defined contribution model.

The pension reforms were intended to stabilize the system and prepare it for the future difficulties such as ageing and poverty relief; they were also meant to develop the capital market and reduce the burden on the state budget. The main steps included introduction of the mandatory private pension pillar.. The reforms also eliminated PAYG for new joiners and turned the system from actuarially imbalanced, DB…to actuarially balanced, DC, privately managed and invested in capital markets. …The comparison of the reforms in Israel and those in Chile…shows a large similarity: shutting down the PAYG system to new joiners; a shift to funds which are privately managed, DC type, invested in capital markets system; a mandatory pension in the second pillar; development of the local capital markets using the pension accumulation; reduction of government involvement in pensions and of the burden on the state budget.. The main differences encompass low contribution rates in Chile that led to low net replacement rates, while in Israel the contribution rates and net replacement rates are high.

Oddly, the article never states how much of a worker’s paycheck goes to mandatory savings (i.e., the contribution rate).

So here’s a blurb from a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Since January 2008, mandatory contributions have applied to earnings up to the national average wage for all employees… Initially the rates were modest with a total contribution of 2.5% but increased to 15% (5% from employees and 10% from employers) by 2013. In 2014 the contribution rate increased further to 17.5% (5.5% from employees and 12% from employers)and since January 2018 increased to 18.5% (6% from employees and 12.5% from employers). Six percentage points out of the employers’ contribution provides severance insurance which, if utilised, diminishes the pension.

That is a significantly higher level of mandated private savings when compared to countries such as Australia and Chile.

Sadly, the United States isn’t part of that conversation since we’re still stuck with our actuarially bankrupt Social Security scheme.

P.S. While researching this column, I read the OECD’s recent Survey about Israel’s economy. The bureaucrats in Paris groused that there’s a lot of inequality and poverty in that country.

This set of data perfectly illustrates why the OECD is an untrustworthy and biased bureaucracy.

As noted by my Eighth Theorem of Government, it should focus on economic growth to reduce poverty rather than fixating on whether some people are getting richer faster than others are getting richer.

Speaking of which, the supposed poverty data doesn’t actually measure poverty. Instead, “relative poverty” is simply the share of people are below “50% of median household income,” which the OECD then dishonestly characterizes as a measure of poverty (this is how the OECD came up with the absurd claim that there’s more poverty in the United States than in comparatively poor countries such as Turkey and Portugal).

Ironically, the same OECD report admits that Israel is out-performing other developed nations.

Israel is growing faster, as you can see, while also reducing government debt at a time when it’s going up in other countries (I’m sure coronavirus has since wreaked havoc with the Israeli economy, but that’s also true for other OECD countries).

Yet the OECD can’t resist grousing about inequality and lying about poverty.

P.P.S. Shifting back to social security reform, here are some of the other nations (beside Israel, Chile, and Australia) that now benefit from private savings instead of empty political promises: DenmarkSwitzerlandHong KongNetherlandsFaroe Islands, and Sweden.

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Traditional economics, specifically convergence theory, tells us that poor nations should grow faster than rich nations.

I’m more interested, however, in why convergence often doesn’t happen, or only partially happens.

And I’m extremely interested in why we often see divergence, which occurs when two countries are at a similar level of development, but then one grows much faster than the other.

Let’s consider the example of Brazil vs, South Korea.  has an interesting article, published by the Center for Macroeconomics and Development, that looks at how the two countries have diverged over the past 50 years.

Here’s the chart that depicts the dramatic difference.

The author analyzes many of the reasons that South Korea has enjoyed faster growth.

It’s especially worth noting that Brazil’s protectionism has been self-defeating.

The “middle-income trap” has captured many developing countries: they succeeded in evolving from low per capita income levels, but then appeared to stall, losing momentum along the route toward the higher income levels… Such a trap may well characterize the experience of Brazil and most of Latin America since the 1980s. Conversely, South Korea maintained its pace of evolution, reaching a high-income status… The path from low- to middle- and then to high-income per capita corresponds to increasing the shares of population moved from subsistence activities to simple modern tasks and then to sophisticated ones. …South Korea relied extensively on international trade to accelerate their labor transfer by inserting themselves into the labor-intensive segments of global value chains… with the “helping winners and saving losers” of Brazil’s industrial policies…, the temptation to use surpluses to accumulate wealth in ways to maximize frontiers of interaction with the public sector prevails… Brazil’s long-standing high levels of trade protection and closure also favored such an option… The Brazilian economy pays a price in terms of productivity foregone because of its lack of trade openness.

As a big fan of trade, I obviously agree with this analysis.

But I also think that’s not the full story.

If you compare the scores the two countries get from the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll find that South Korea scores better on trade.

But you’ll also notice that there are much bigger gaps when looking at scores for size of government, legal system and property rights, and regulation (and the gaps for the latter two indices have existed for decades).

The bottom line is that there are many policy reasons why Brazil lags behind South Korea.

So if Brazil wants to break out of the “middle-income trap,” it needs to follow the tried-and-true recipe for growth and prosperity (what used to be known as the “Washington Consensus“).

P.S. And that means ignoring poisonous advice from the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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There are two reasons why I generally don’t write much about government debt.

  • First, red ink is not desirable, but it’s mostly just the symptom of the far more important problem of excessive government spending.
  • Second, our friends on the left periodically try to push through big tax increases by hypocritically exploiting anxiety about red ink.

The one thing I can state with full certainty, however, is that tax increases are guaranteed to make a bad situation worse.

We’ll get a weaker economy (perhaps much weaker since the left is now fixated on pushing for the kinds of tax increases that do the most damage).

Equally worrisome, the biggest impact of a tax increase is that politicians won’t feel any need to control spending or reform entitlements. Indeed, it’s quite likely that they’ll respond to the expectation of higher revenue by increasing the spending burden.

To complicate matters further, any tax increase probably won’t generate that much additional revenue because of the Laffer Curve.

All of which explains why budget deals that include tax increases usually lead to even higher budget deficits.

This analysis is very timely and relevant since advocates of bigger government somehow claim that the new fiscal forecast from the Congressional Budget Office is proof that we need new taxes.

So I’m doing the same thing today I did back in January (and last August, and in January 2019, and many times before that starting back in 2010). I’ve crunched the numbers to see what sort of policies would be needed to balance the budget without tax increases.

Lo and behold, you can see from this chart that we wouldn’t need draconian spending cuts. All that’s needed for fiscal balance is to limit spending so that it grows slightly less than 1 percent per year (and this analysis even assumes that they get to wait until 2022 before imposing a cap on annual spending increases).

To be sure, politicians would not want to live with that kind of limit on their spending. So I’m not optimistic that we’ll get this type of policy in the near future.

Especially since the major parties are giving voters a choice between big-spender Trump and big-spender Biden.

But the last thing that we should do is worsen the nation’s fiscal outlook by acquiescing to higher taxes.

P.S. It’s worth noting that there was a five-year nominal spending freeze between 2009 and 2014 (back when the Tea Party was influential), so it is possible to achieve multi-year spending restraint in Washington.

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Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget projections. The most important numbers in that report show what’s happening with the overall fiscal burden of government – measured by both taxes and spending.

As you can see, there’s a big one-time spike in coronavirus-related spending this year. That’s not good news, but more worrisome is the the longer-run trend of government spending gradually climbing as a share of economic output (and the numbers are significantly worse if you look at CBO’s 30-year projection).

Most reporters and fiscal wonks overlooked the spending data, however, and instead focused on the CBO’s projection for government debt.

Since government spending is the problem and borrowing is merely a symptom of that problem, I think it’s a mistake to fixate on red ink.

That being said, Figure 3 from the CBO report shows that there’s also an upward-spike in federal debt.

And it is true (remember Greece) that high levels of debt can, by themselves, produce a crisis. This happens when investors suddenly stop buying government bonds because they think there’s a risk of default (which happens when a government is incapable or unwilling to make promised payments to lenders).

I think some nations are on the verge of having that kind of crisis, most notably Italy.

But what about the United States? Or Japan? And how’s the outlook for Europe’s welfare states?

In other words, what nations are approaching a tipping point?

A new study from the European Central Bank may help answer these questions. Authored by Pablo Burriel, Cristina Checherita-Westphal, Pascal Jacquinot, Matthias Schön, and Nikolai Stähler, it uses several economic models to measure the downside risks of excessive debt.

The 2009 global financial and economic crisis left a legacy of historically high levels of public debt in advanced economies, at a scale unseen during modern peace time. …The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a different type of shock that has dramatically affected global economic activity… Fiscal positions are projected to be strongly hit by the crisis…once the crisis is over and the recovery firmly sets in, keeping public debt at high levels over the medium term is a source of vulnerability… The main objective of this paper is to contribute to the stabilisation vs. sustainability debate in the euro area by reviewing through the lens of large scale DSGE models the economic risks associated with regimes of high public debt.

Here’s what they found, none of which should be a surprise.

…we evaluate the economic consequences of high public debt using simulations with three DSGE models… Our DSGE simulations also suggest that high-debt economies…can lose more output in a crisis…have less scope for counter-cyclical fiscal policy and…are adversely affected in terms of potential (long-term) output, with a significant impairment in case of large sovereign risk premia reaction and use of most distortionary type of taxation to finance the additional public debt burden in the future.

Here’s a useful chart from the study. It shows some sort of shock on the left (2008 financial crisis or coronavirus being obvious examples), which then produces a recession (lower GDP) and rising debt.

That outcome isn’t good for nations with “low” levels of debt, but it can be really bad for nations with “high” debt burdens because they have to deal with much higher interest payments, much bigger tax increases, and much bigger reductions in economic output.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the study actually gives us any way of determining which nations are near the tipping point. That’s because “low” and “high” are subjective. Japan has an enormous amount of debt, yet investors don’t think there’s any meaningful risk that Japan’s government will default, so it is a “low” debt nation for purposes of the above illustration.

By contrast, there’s a much lower level of debt in Argentina, but investors have almost no trust in that nation’s especially venal politicians, so it’s a “high” debt nation for purposes of this analysis.

The United States, in my humble opinion, is more like Japan. As I wrote last year, “We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.” And that’s still my view, even after all the spending and debt for coronavirus.

The study concludes with some common-sense advice about using spending restraint and pro-market reforms to create buffers (some people refer to this as “fiscal space“).

Overall, once the COVID-19 crisis is over and the economic recovery firmly re-established, further efforts to build fiscal buffers in good times and mitigate fiscal risks over the medium term are needed at the national level. Such efforts should be guided by risks to debt sustainability. High debt countries, in particular, should implement a mix of fiscal discipline and wide-ranging growth-enhancing reforms.

Needless to say, there’s an obvious and successful way of achieving this goal.

P.S. Here’s another chart from the ECB study that is worth sharing because it confirms that not all tax increases do the same amount of economic damage.

We see that consumption taxes (red line) are bad, but income taxes on workers (green line) are even worse.

And if the study included an estimate of what would happen if there were higher income taxes on saving and investment, there would be another line showing even more economic damage.

P.P.S. History shows that nations can reduce very large debt burdens if they follow my Golden Rule.

P.P.P.S. There’s a related study from the IMF that shows how excessive spending is a major warning sign that nations will be vulnerable to fiscal crisis.

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Back in July, I asked “Why are there so many bad and corrupt people in government?” and suggested two possible explanations.

  1. Shallow, insecure, and power-hungry people are drawn to politics because they want to control the lives of others.
  2. Good people run for political office, but then slowly but surely get corrupted because of “public choice” incentives.

Both answers are correct, of course. The real debate is whether one type dominates (based on decades of up-close interaction, I’m guessing there are more from category #1).

In any event, there are plenty of things to dislike about politicians. What’s especially galling is when they decide they don’t have to abide by the laws and regulations they impose on the rest of us.

Consider, for example, the oleaginous example of Nancy Pelosi. The Speaker of the House apparently feels she doesn’t have to obey the rules imposed on everyone else.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited a San Francisco hair salon on Monday afternoon for a wash and blow-out, despite local ordinances keeping salons closed amid the coronavirus pandemic… In security footage…, the California powerhouse is seen walking through eSalon in San Francisco with wet hair, and without a mask over her mouth or nose. …Salons in San Francisco had been closed since March and were only notified they could reopen on Sept. 1 for outdoor hairstyling services only. Salon owner Erica Kious…cast Pelosi’s visit as a double standard. “It was a slap in the face that she went in, you know, that she feels that she can just go and get her stuff done while no one else can go in, and I can’t work,”…Kious told Fox News that she had expected to be able to reopen her salon in July, and prepared her space in accordance with local guidelines. “There were rules and regulations to go by to safely reopen, which I did, but I was still not allowed to open my business,” she said.

By the way, I can’t resist sharing this additional passage from the story.

“No one can last anymore,” she said. “I have also lost 60 percent of my clientele because everyone is fleeing the city.”

I’ll simply add that there are good reasons to escape San Francisco. And those reasons existed before the coronavirus.

But that’s just a start. There are also good reasons to leave California.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the topic of repugnant politicians so we can see that that Pelosi isn’t the only hypocrite.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney also deserves attention for his two-faced behavior.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney publicly apologized on Monday after he was busted for sneaking across the border to enjoy a meal at a Maryland restaurant over the weekend. …in Philadelphia, indoor dining is still fully forbidden under restrictions imposed by the city government—the one that Kenney runs. …his do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach to COVID-19 undermines the legitimacy of the harsh restrictions Philadelphia has imposed on its own restaurant industry and demonstrates a callous disregard for how those policies have impacted the city’s residents and businesses. Kenney can drive across the border to Maryland easily, but a Philly bar can’t pick up and move to Delaware to escape the city’s lockdowns.

This online comment about Kenney’s hypocrisy is priceless.

By the way, Kenney is infamous for imposing a soda tax that hurt Philly merchants since consumers simply stocked up at stores outside the city. So at least he’s consistent in hurting all types of businesses.

In any event, both Pelosi and Kenney deserve consideration if there’s a 2020 Politician of the Year contest (previous contestants for that honor include D.C. Councilman Jack Evans, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, and French President Francois Hollande).

Or maybe we need a Hypocrite of the Year contest. Though normally that’s a honor reserved for rich politicians who advocate for higher taxes on ordinary people, yet figure out clever ways of protecting their own money (such as Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth WarrenSenator John KerryBill and Hillary ClintonCongressman Alan GraysonGovernor J.B. Pritzker, and Tom Steyer).

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If Donald Trump wins the 2020 election, I don’t expect any serious effort to rein in the burden of government spending.

And if Joe Biden wins the 2002 election, I don’t expect any serious effort to rein in the burden of government spending.

At the risk of understatement, this is rather unfortunate since fiscal policy in the United States is on a very worrisome path.

Thanks to demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs, the federal budget – assuming it is left on autopilot – is going to consume an ever-larger share of the nation’s economic output.

And that means fewer resources for the economy’s productive sector.

In a new study from the Hoover Institution, Professor John F. Cogan, Daniel L. Heil, and Professor John B. Taylor investigate the potential consequences of bigger government – and the potential benefits of spending restraint.

In this paper we consider an illustrative fiscal consolation proposal that restrains the growth in federal spending. The policy is to hold federal expenditures as a share of GDP at about the 20 percent ratio that prevailed before the pandemic hit. We estimate the policy’s impact using a structural macroeconomic model with price and wage rigidities and adjustment costs. The spending restraint avoids a potentially large increase in future federal taxes and prevents the outstanding debt relative to GDP from rising from its current level. The simulations show that the consolidation plan boosts short-run annual GDP growth by as much as 10 percent and increases long-run annual GDP growth by about 7 percent.

The authors believe that there will be some tax increases over the next few decades – an assumption that I fear will be accurate.

…our baseline assumes that future Congresses will enact tax increases to finance a portion of rising future federal spending. Specifically, we have assumed that Congress will finance half of the projected higher baseline outlays with higher tax rates. The tax rate increases are assumed to be gradually phased-in and are in the form of equi-proportionate increases in personal income tax rates, corporate income tax rates, and social insurance tax rates. Under these assumptions, tax rates will be about 20 percent higher in 2045 than in 2022.

Here are their projection over the next 25 years.

The authors then create an alternative scenario based on spending restraint, including entitlement reform.

To illustrate the potential positive impact of a fiscal consolidation plan on economic growth, we have chosen a stylized long-term budget policy that reduces the growth in federal spending, maintains federal tax rates at their current levels, and limits the outstanding federal debt relative to GDP to its pandemic high level. …the spending side of the plan has three essential elements. One, reductions in government spending from the baseline which come exclusively from permanent changes in entitlement programs; the principal source of the federal government’s long-term fiscal imbalance. …Two, the plan contains an immediate one-time reduction in entitlement program spending that permanently lowers the overall level of government spending. Three, the plan permanently reduces the growth in entitlement spending thereafter from this lower level.

They then estimate what happens to the fiscal burden of government if policy makers choose spending restraint instead of bigger government and tax increases.

In 2033, ten years from the initiation of the policy, total federal spending as a percent of GDP, including interest on the debt, would be 3.3 percent lower than baseline expenditures. In twenty years, it would be 5.7 percent lower. …the consolidation plan would maintain all federal tax rates.at their current statutory levels. …revenue as a share.. of GDP would rise slightly over time due to real bracket creep. Thus, the plan is designed to prevent the approximately 15 percent tax rate increases that are presumed in the budget baseline.

Here’s a chart from the study that shows how the burden of redistribution spending and social insurance programs is significantly smaller with the restraint approach.

Now we get to key results.

Cogan, Heil, and Taylor use a model of the U.S. economy to estimate what happens if there is spending restraint instead of bigger government.

Unsurprisingly, there’s more prosperity when there’s a smaller burden of spending.

The impact of the consolidation strategy is shown in Figure 4. Observe that there is a substantial increase in real GDP in the short run, and that this positive change occurs throughout the simulation through 2045. The short-run increase of about 0.5 percent in the first two years following the policy’s implementation amounts to about a 10 percent increase in the real GDP growth rate. Over the longer-term, GDP increases by about 3.7 percent after 25 years. This is equivalent to a 7 percent increase in the economy’s real growth rate.

This chart from the study shows the economic benefits of spending restraint.

These results are consistent with what other economists have produced.

Heck, even economists at left-leaning international bureaucracies such as OECD, World Bank, and IMF have acknowledged that smaller government is better for prosperity.

P.S. The unanswered question, of course, is how to convince self-interested politicians to choose spending restraint instead of buying votes with other people’s money. A spending cap is probably a necessary but not sufficient condition (it’s an approach that has been very successful in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado – and which was recently adopted in Brazil).

P.P.S. Even small differences in economic growth have a significant long-run impact on living standards.

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