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I had a chance to write about several interesting topics (Australian politics and policy, the economics of government spending, the structure of taxation) on my recent trip Down Under.

I also appeared on The Outsiders, one of Australia’s most popular political programs.

Here are a few links for those who want more information on some of the topics that were discussed.

  • Societal capital – I fear that there is a tipping point and that nations are doomed once people decide that it’s morally acceptable to use government coercion to live off the effort of others.
  • Demographics – Many nations face a built-in crisis because their redistribution programs are unaffordable now that people are living longer and having fewer children.
  • Social Security reform – It’s not pure libertarianism, but Australia’s system of private retirement accounts is vastly superior to America’s bankrupt tax-and-transfer Social Security system.
  • Socialism – It’s very troubling that many young people support the poisonous ideology of socialism, but I offered an optimistic spin that this doesn’t necessarily mean support for coercive statism.
  • Tax reform – Citing globalization as a driving factor, I couldn’t resist the temptation to spread the supply-side gospel of lower marginal tax rates on productive economic activity.
  • Donald Trump – As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, America’s president is an incoherent mix of good policies on tax and regulation mixed with bad policies on spending and trade.
  • Trade and protectionism – Speaking of trade, I argued that the trade deficit doesn’t matter and also suggested a sensible approach for dealing with China.

P.S. This interview was an encore performance. I also appeared on The Outsiders in 2017. Part of my plan to curry favor so that I can escape to Australia if (when?) America suffers Greek-style chaos.

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As part of today’s sessions at the Friedman conference in Australia, I got to listen to Professor Tony Makin talk about the burden of government spending in Australia.

I want to share several of his slides since he made some very cogent points.

First, he pointed out that debt-financed government spending is bad.

But he also pointed out that tax-financed government spending is equally bad.

In other words, the fiscal burden of government is the total level of spending. How that spending is financed is a secondary concern.

I’ve made similar arguments, so perhaps this won’t be new information for regular readers.

However, Professor Makin augmented the theory with some statistical analysis.

This is how he structured his model.

And here are his results.

His numbers shouldn’t be a surprise. I narrated an entire video that listed study after study showing the same thing.

And even the OECD has, on multiple occasions, produced research showing that bigger public sectors are associated with weaker economic performance. Same thing with economists at the IMF (the political leadership at the international bureaucracies is terrible, but the economists sometimes produce solid research).

By the way, Professor Makin shared some fascinating Australia-specific data looking at spending increases (or decreases) by year. And also broke down the data by who controlled the government.

As you can see (echoing what I wrote two days ago), the supposedly left-wing Hawke and Keating governments were reasonably frugal.

John Howard, by contrast, was supposed to be a right-of-center leader. Yet he fell off the wagon after a strong start (and also set the stage for a very bad Labor government).

In recent years, the right-of-center Liberal-National coalition has done a decent job. It will interesting to see what happens when newly reelected Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveils the next budget.

My two cents (in addition to lowering the top tax rate) is that he should propose some sort of spending cap, like the ones in Switzerland and Hong Kong.

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I’m in Sydney, Australia, but not because I’m confirming that this country will be my escape option if (when?) the United States suffers a Greek-style fiscal collapse.

Instead, I’m Down Under for the annual Friedman Conference.

This gives me an excuse to write about Australia, especially since national elections just took place this past weekend. Interestingly, the incumbent, right-of-center government retained power in an upset, winning 77 or 78 seats (out of a possible 151).

Here’s the breakdown.

The folks at Slate lean to the left, so their article is understandably riddled with anguish.

Australia’s dysfunctional, unpopular, conservative government…held onto power for a third term in Saturday’s national election. This happened despite the fact that most analysts expected it to lose a large number of seats; despite being (seemingly) out of step with the nation’s emerging consensus on climate change.. A Labor Party win had been anticipated for three years, with the opposition winning every single poll of the last term. …Expected swings against the coalition in several regions of the country didn’t materialize, while there was a crucial 4 percent swing against Labor in the state of Queensland (alternately described as Australia’s Alabama or Florida). …Progressive Australians are—to understate things—“hurting,”…(only they’re threatening to move to New Zealand instead of Canada). …Labor’s environmental stance, while not actually all that bold, hurt it in coal-friendly Queensland and among voters worried about the costs of acting on climate change… Progressive Australians are reeling because any lingering illusions that we were a “fair” nation have been shattered. Whatever Labor’s political shortcomings, Australians in general voted against a detailed platform that aimed to seriously address climate change, raise wages, increase cancer funding, make child care free or significantly cheaper, close tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy, fund the arts, fund the underfunded public broadcaster… Instead, they voted for … not much of anything (other than some tax cuts).

Since I’m a wonk, I’m much more interested in the policy implications rather than the political machinations.

The good news is that Labor’s defeat means Australia will be spared some costly tax increases and some expensive green intervention.

But it’s unclear whether there will be many pro-growth reforms.

The right-of-center Liberal-National Coalition has promised some tax relief, but I don’t know if it will be supply-side rate reductions or merely the distribution of favors using the tax code.

For what it’s worth, Australia needs to lower its top tax rate on households, which is nearly 50 percent. European-type tax rates are always a bad idea, and they are especially senseless for a country that has to compete with Hong Kong and Singapore.

It would also be nice if the newly reelected government chooses to fix some of the housing policies that have made Australian cities very unfriendly to families.

Joel Kotkin explains why this is a problem in an article for City Journal.

Few places on earth are better suited for middle-class prosperity than Australia. From early in its history, …the vast, resource-rich country has provided an ideal environment for upward mobility… Over the last decade, though, Australia’s luck has changed… Despite being highly dependent on resource sales to China—largely coal, gas, oil, and iron ore—Australia has embraced green domestic politics more associated with Manhattan liberals or Silicon Valley oligarchs than the prototypical unpretentious Aussie… Historically, the Australian Labor Party, like its counterpart in Britain, was a party of the working class. …These views seem almost quaint today, particularly for a Labor Party increasingly dominated by those operating outside the tangible economy, as part of the professional class—media, finance, public service—and concentrated in the largely family-free urban cores. …Australia’s commitment to renewable energy dwarfs that of even the most committed green-leaning countries. Per capita, Australia has installed roughly five times as many renewable-energy installations as the E.U., the U.S., or China, and even two-and-a-half times more than climate-obsessed Germany. …The most pernicious assault on Australia’s middle class comes from regulation of land and expenditures to promote urban density. …In Australia, only 0.3 percent of the country is urban. As in major cities in Great Britain, Australia, the U.S., and Canada, “smart growth” has helped turn Australia’s once-affordable cities into some of the world’s costliest. …Sydney’s planning regulations, according to a Reserve Bank study, add 55 percent to the price of a home. In Perth, Melbourne, and Brisbane, the impact exceeds $100,000 per house. Australian cities once filled with family-friendly neighborhoods are becoming dominated by dense apartments. …Today, many Australians face an uncharacteristically bleak future. Urged to settle where the planners and pundits prefer, they’re stuck in places both unaffordable and inhospitable, as part of a needless governmental drive to make life there more like that of the more congested, socially riven metropoles of Britain.

For all intents and purposes, I want Australian lawmakers to rekindle their reformist zeal.

If you look at the historical data from Economic Freedom of the World, you can see that Australia enjoyed a big jump in economic liberty between 1975-2000.

Basically climbing from 6 to 8 on a 0-10 scale.

Sadly, there hasn’t been much reform this century. That being said, Australia’s era of liberalization last century is still paying dividends. The country is routinely ranked in the top-10 for economic liberty.

Interestingly, many of the changes between 1975-2000 happened when the Labor Party was led by reformers such as Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Mr. Hawke, incidentally, just passed away. His obituary in the New York Times acknowledges that he liberalized the economy.

Bob Hawke, Australia’s hugely popular prime minister from 1983 to 1991, who presided over wrenching changes that integrated his nation into the global economy…, died on Thursday… Rising to power as a trade union leader, Mr. Hawke led his center-left Australian Labor Party to four consecutive election victories in a tenure of nearly nine years, in which Australia emerged dramatically from relative isolation… Confronting chronic strikes, soaring inflation, high unemployment and trade deficits, Mr. Hawke revolutionized the economy. He cut protective tariffs, privatized state-owned industries…reined in powerful unions… “We are now living in a tough, new competitive world in which we have got to make it on our own merits,” Mr. Hawke told The New York Times in 1985.

I’m irked, though, that the article doesn’t mention that Hawke (in power from 1983-91) began Australia’s system of personal retirement accounts.

That excellent reform, which was expanded by the Keating government (in power from 1991-96), is paying big dividends to Australia.

Indeed, let’s wrap up today’s column with some excerpts from a laudatory article in the Economist.

The last time Australia suffered a recession, the Soviet Union still existed and the worldwide web did not. …No other rich country has ever managed to grow so steadily for so long. …Public debt amounts to just 41% of GDP—one of the lowest levels in the rich world. That, in turn, is a function not just of Australia’s enviable record in terms of growth, but also of a history of shrewd policymaking. Nearly 30 years ago, the government of the day overhauled the pension system. Since then workers have been obliged to save for their retirement through private investment funds.

It’s noteworthy that the system of personal accounts, known as superannuation, manages to attract praise from unlikely quarters.

And it is one of the reasons for the country’s success. Here’s an accompanying chart showing that Australia has enjoyed more growth, higher wages, and less debt than other major nations.

Is Australian policy perfect? Of course not.

But does the data from Australia show that better policy leads to better results? Definitely.

P.S. The Aussies also reaped big benefits by unilaterally reducing trade barriers (it would be nice if a certain person residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue learned from that experience).

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Better economic performance is the most important reason to adopt pro-growth reforms such as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

Even small increases in economic growth – especially if sustained over time – can translate into meaningful improvements in living standards.

But there are several reasons why it won’t be easy to “prove” that last year’s tax reform boosted the economy.

And there are probably other factors to mention as well.

The takeaway is that the nation will enjoy good results from the 2017 tax changes, but I fully expect that the class-warfare crowd will claim that any good news is for reasons other than tax reform. And if there isn’t good news, they’ll assert this is evidence against “supply-side economics” and totally ignore the harmful effect of offsetting policies such as Trump’s protectionism.

That being said, some of the benefits of tax reform are already evident and difficult to dispute.

Let’s start by looking at what’s happening Down Under, largely driven by American tax reform.

The Australian government announced Monday that the Senate will vote in June on cutting corporate tax rates after an opinion poll suggested the contentious reform had popular public support. …Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s conservative coalition wants to cut the corporate tax rate by 5 percent to 25 percent by 2026-27… Cormann said the need to reduce the tax burden on businesses had become more pressing for future Australian jobs and investment since the 2016 election because the United States had reduced its top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. “Putting businesses in Australia at an ongoing competitive disadvantage deliberately by imposing higher taxes in Australia … puts Australian workers at an oncoming disadvantage and that is clearly the point that more and more Australians are starting to fully appreciate,” Cormann told reporters. Cormann was referring to a poll published in The Australian newspaper on Monday that showed 63 percent of respondents supported company tax cuts.

Wow.

What’s remarkable is not that Australian lawmakers are moving to lower their corporate rate. The government, after all, has known for quite some time that this reform was necessary to boost wages and improve competitiveness.

The amazing takeaway from this article is that ordinary people understand and support the need to engage in tax competition and other nations feel compelled to also cut business tax burdens.

All last year, I kept arguing that this was one of the main reasons to support Trump’s proposal for a lower corporate rate. And now we’re seeing the benefits materializing.

Now let’s look at a positive domestic effect of tax reform, with a feel-good story from New Jersey. It appears that the avarice-driven governor may not get his huge proposed tax hike, even though Democrats dominate the state legislature.

Why? Because the state and local tax deduction has been curtailed, which means the federal government is no longer aiding and abetting bad fiscal policy.

New Jersey’s new Democratic governor is finding that, even with his party in full control of Trenton, raising taxes in one of the country’s highest-taxed states is no day at the beach. Gov. Phil Murphy…has proposed a $37.4 billion budget. He wants to raise $1.7 billion in new taxes and other revenue… But some of his fellow Democrats, who control the state legislature, have balked at the governor’s proposals to raise the state’s sales tax and impose a millionaires tax. State Senate President Steve Sweeney has been particularly vocal. …Mr. Sweeney previously voted for a millionaire’s tax, but said he changed his mind after the federal tax law was passed in December. The law capped previously unlimited annual state and local tax deductions at $10,000 for individual and married filers, and Mr. Sweeney said he is concerned an additional millionaire’s tax could drive people out of the state. “I think that people that have the ability to leave are leaving,” he said.

Of course they’re leaving. New Jersey taxes a lot and it’s the understatement of the century to point out that there’s not a correspondingly high level of quality services from government.

So why not move to Florida or Texas, where you’ll pay much less and government actually works better?

The bottom line is that tax-motivated migration already was occurring and it’s going to become even more important now that federal tax reform is no longer providing a huge de facto subsidy to high-tax states. And that’s going to have a positive effect. New Jersey is just an early example.

This doesn’t mean states won’t ever again impose bad policy. New Jersey probably will adopt some sort of tax hike before the dust settles. But it won’t be as bad as Governor Murphy wanted.

We also may see Illinois undo its flat tax after this November’s election, which would mean the elimination of the only decent feature of the state’s tax system. But I also don’t doubt that there will be some Democrats in the Illinois capital who warn (at least privately) that such a change will hasten the state’s collapse.

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I gave a couple of speeches about fiscal policy in Australia late last week.

During the Q&A sessions (as so often happens when I speak overseas), the audiences mostly asked questions about Donald Trump. I generally give a three-part response.

So when I was asked to appear on Australian television, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was asked several questions about Trump.

But the good news is that the segment lasted for more than 18 minutes so I got a chance to pontificate about taxes and spending.

In particular, I had an opportunity to explain two very important principles of fiscal policy.

First, I explained the Rahn Curve and discussed why both Australia and the United States should worry that the public sector is too large. This means less growth in our respective nations because government spending (whether financed by taxes or borrowing) diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy.

Second, I explained the Laffer Curve and tried to get across why high tax rates are a bad idea (even if they raise more revenue). As always, my top goal was to explain that a nation should not seek to be at the revenue-maximizing point.

I also had an opportunity to take some potshots at international bureaucracies such as the IMF and OECD. Yes, we get good statistics from such organizations and even some occasional good research, but they have a statist policy agenda that undermines global growth. And I never cease to be offended that bureaucrats at these organizations get tax-free salaries, yet get to jet around the world urging higher taxes on the rest of us.

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Back in 2013, when I was still doing a “question of the week” column, I suggested that Australian was the best option for those contemplating a new home in the event of some sort of Greek-style fiscal collapse in the United States.

I pointed out that America wasn’t in any immediate danger, though I can understand why some people are interested in the question since our long-run outlook is rather grim.

Anyhow, I picked Australia for several reasons, including its geographic position (no unstable welfare states on the border, which is why I didn’t select Switzerland), its private social security system (unfunded liabilities are small compared to the $44 trillion shortfall in America’s government-run system), and its relatively high level of economic freedom.

I’m not the only person to notice that Australia is a good place to live. A recent Bloomberg column noted that millionaires are moving Down Under.

They’re all going to the land Down Under. Australia is luring increasing numbers of global millionaires, helping make it one of the fastest growing wealthy nations in the world… Over the past decade, total wealth held in Australia has risen by 85 percent compared to 30 percent in the U.S. and 28 percent in the U.K., aided by the fact that Australia has gone 25 years without a recession. As a result, the average Australian is now significantly wealthier than the average American or Briton. …At the end of 2016 individuals held about $192 trillion of wealth worldwide…, with 13.6 million millionaires holding $69 trillion of this. There were 522,000 multi-millionaires, having net assets of $10 million or more.

The number of millionaires moving to Australia is especially impressive when looking at global data.

Here’s a map showing the nations with the most incoming and outgoing rich people (h/t: Steve Hanke). Maybe it’s because there’s no death tax in Australia, but it’s remarkable that a nation with less than one-tenth the population of the United States manages to attract more millionaires.

But not everybody is cheerful about Australia’s economic position.

I’m currently in Brisbane for a couple of speeches. I spoke earlier today about how market-oriented jurisdictions grow much faster over the long run when compared to nations with statist economic policy.

But I don’t want to focus on my remarks (much of which will be old news to regular readers). Instead, let’s look at the some of the information in a speech by Professor Tony Makin of Griffith University.

Two of his slides caught my attention. Let’s start with a depressing look at how Australia has declined in the global competitiveness rankings put together each year by the World Economic Forum.

This is not a good trend.

That being said, I think Economic Freedom of the World is a more accurate measure and it shows that Australia (whether looking at its absolute score or its relative ranking) has suffered only a small decline.

Here’s another chart that is depressing as well. It shows that the per-capita burden of taxes and spending has continuously increased even after adjusting for inflation.

To be fair, the numbers aren’t quite as bad when looking at taxes and spending as a share of gross domestic product.

Nonetheless, the trend isn’t favorable, which is a point I made back in 2014.

None of this changes my view that Australia is still a good choice for emigrating Americans. But it does leave me worried about whether it will still be the top choice in 10 years or 20 years.

For what it’s worth, the main recommendation in my speech was for Australia to adopt a spending cap, similar to the ones that exist in Hong Kong and Switzerland. I also should have suggested sweeping decentralization since the government actually is open to that idea.

P.S. One of the most disappointing things about Australia is that the country’s foreign aid bureaucrats are trying to bribe/coerce Vanuatu’s government into adopting an income tax.

P.P.S. Professor Makin was the author of the report I recently cited about the failure of Australia’s Keynesian spending binge.

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Time for an update on the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics.

We’ll start with the good news. The Treasury Department commissioned a study on the efficacy of the so-called stimulus spending that took place at the end of last decade. As discussed in this news report, the results were negative.

…a scathing new Treasury-commissioned report…argues the cash splash actually weakened the economy and damaged local industry… The report, …says the…fiscal stimulus was “unnecessarily large” and “misconceived because it emphasised transfers, unproductive expenditure…rather than tax relief and/or supply side reform”.

The bad news, at least from an American perspective, is that it was this story isn’t about the United States. It’s a story from an Australian newspaper about a study by an Australian professor about the Keynesian spending binge in Australia that was enacted back in 2008 and 2009.

I actually gave my assessment of the plan back in 2010, and I even provided my highly sophisticated analysis at no charge.

The Treasury-commissioned report, by contrast, presumably wasn’t free. The taxpayers of Australia probably coughed up tens of thousands of dollars for the study.

But this is a rare case where they may benefit, at least if policy makers read the findings and draw the appropriate conclusions.

Here are some of the highlights that caught my eye, starting with a description of what the Australian government actually did.

The GFC fiscal stimulus involved a mix of new public expenditure on school buildings, social housing, home insulation, limited tax breaks for business, and income transfers to select groups. Stimulus packages were announced and implemented in the December 2008, March 2009 quarters and ran into subsequent quarters.

For what it’s worth, there are strong parallels between what happened in the U.S. and Australia.v

Both nations had modest-sized Keynesian packages in 2008, followed by larger plans in 2009. The total American “stimulus” was larger because of a larger population and larger economy, of course, and the political situation was also different since it was one government that did the two plans in Australia compared to two governments (Bush in 2008 and Obama in 2009) imposing Keynesianism in the United States.

Here’s a table from the report, showing how the money was (mis)spent in Australia.

Now let’s look at the economic impact. We know Keynesianism didn’t work very well in the United States.

And the report suggests it didn’t work any better in Australia.

…fiscal stimulus induced foreign investors to take up newly issued relatively high yielding government bonds whose AAA credit rating further enhanced their appeal. This contributed to exchange rate appreciation and a subsequent competitiveness… Worsened competitiveness in turn reduced the viability of substantial parts of manufacturing, including the motor vehicle sector. …Government spending continued to rise as a proportion of GDP… This put upward pressure on interest rates… this worsened industry competitiveness contributed to major job losses, not gains, in manufacturing and tourism. …In sum, fiscal stimulus was not primarily responsible for saving the Australian economy… Fiscal stimulus later weakened the economy.

Though there was one area where the Keynesian policies had a significant impact.

Australia’s public debt growth post GFC ranks amongst the highest in the G20. Ongoing budget deficits and rising public debt have contributed to economic weakness in numerous ways. …Interest paid by the federal government on its outstanding debt was under $4 billion before the GFC yet could reach $20 billion, or one per cent of GDP, by the end of the decade.

We got a similar result in America. Lots more red ink.

Except our debt started higher and grew by more, so we face a more difficult future (especially since Australia is much less threatened by demographics thanks to a system of private retirement savings).

The study also makes a very good point about the different types of austerity.

…a distinction can be made between “good” and “bad” fiscal consolidation in terms of its macroeconomic impact. Good fiscal repair involves cutting unproductive government spending, including program overlap between different tiers of government. On the contrary, bad fiscal repair involves cutting productive infrastructure spending, or raising taxes that distort incentives to save and invest.

Incidentally, the report noted that the Kiwis implemented a “good” set of policies.

…in New Zealand…marginal income tax rates were reduced, infrastructure was improved and the regulatory burden on business was lowered.

Yet another reason to like New Zealand.

Let’s close by comparing the burden of government spending in the United States and Australia. Using the OECD’s dataset, you see that the Aussies are actually slightly better than the United States.

By the way, it looks like America had a bigger relative spending increase at the end of last decade, but keep in mind that these numbers are relative to economic output. And since Australia only had a minor downturn while the US suffered a somewhat serious recession, that makes the American numbers appear more volatile even if spending is rising at the same nominal rate.

P.S. The U.S. numbers improved significantly between 2009 and 2014 because of a de facto spending freeze. If we did the same thing again today, the budget would be balanced in 2021.

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