Archive for the ‘California’ Category

I’m not a big fan of Donald Trump, mostly because I fear his populist instincts will deter him from policies that we need (such as entitlement reform) while luring him to support policies that are misguided (more federal transportation spending).

But I admit it’s too early to tell. Maybe my policy predictions on Trump will be as bad as my political predictions about Trump.

And, for what it’s worth, I’ll freely acknowledge that Trump’s election is having a very good effect on my leftist friends. Because they fear the new occupant of the White House, they’re now much more sympathetic to the notion that there should be limits on the power of the federal government and they’re acknowledging that maybe federalism isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Indeed, some of them are so supportive of limiting the impact of Washington that they’re considering secession! The L.A. Daily News reports on a growing campaign in the Golden State.

“Yes California,” a pro-secession group, filed paperwork with the state attorney general in November for a proposed 2018 ballot measure to strike language in the state constitution binding California to the United States. …If its ballot measure succeeds, Yes California would pursue a 2019 vote to declare the state’s independence. …Talk of California secession is nothing new. But it gained momentum after Donald Trump’s election. Hillary Clinton got 62 percent of California’s vote in defeating Trump… According to Yes California, a path to secession exists through the U.S.-ratified United Nations charter.

By the way, I thought cozying up to Moscow was a bad thing now. But since the Yes California crowd is even trying to establish relations with Putin-land, I guess coziness is in the eye of the beholder.

…the group announced the opening of a “cultural center” in Moscow.

Anyhow, the folks at Salon are somewhat supportive of “CalExit.”

…it’s time for the media to stop dismissing the idea as a zany left coast response to the newly elected Republican federal government. …secession could be a reality in our lifetime. …Californians could expect to initiate advanced-level progress in racial justice…free of restriction an independent California could actually demonstrate the success of progressive values in action… It’s difficult to say whether California’s rich Democrats in coastal enclaves would be down with paying reparations if the independent nation were scrapping its ties to the U.S. and its colonial past.

But a column in the L.A. Times by Conor Friedersdorf says statist values would suffer if California became independent.

Blue America would lose its biggest source of electoral votes in all future elections. The Senate would have two fewer Democrats. The House of Representatives would lose 38 Democrats and just 14 Republicans. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, among the most liberal in the nation, would be changed irrevocably. And the U.S. as a whole would suddenly be a lot less ethnically diverse than it is today. For those reasons, Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Republicans with White House ambitions, opponents of legalizing marijuana, advocates of criminalizing abortion and various white nationalist groups might all conclude –– for different reasons –– that they would benefit politically from a separation, even as liberals and progressives across America would correctly see it as a catastrophe.

Which may explain why many folks on the right are cheering for secession. Here are some excerpts from another column in the L.A. Times.

…judging by the letters we’ve received from across the country on the burgeoning secessionist movement known as “Calexit,” some readers would be happy see us go — or at least take pleasure in watching our deep-blue state suffer… I have some advice to the sane citizens of California: Members of the middle class should start planning their own exit. When California loses all those billions from the federal government, the politicians are going to need to find money elsewhere, and you know Hollywood’s millionaires aren’t going to provide it. They’ll move to their mountain homes in Wyoming or elsewhere. You think all those new billionaires in Silicon Valley will eagerly part with their money? Think again. They’ll hide their wealth in tax shelters. The refugees and illegal immigrants on the receiving end of California’s generous benefits aren’t going to provide needed tax revenues, so the politicians will target the middle class.

Of course they’ll target the middle class. That’s what they want in Washington. That’s why they want a value-added tax.

Simply stated, you can’t have a cradle-to-grave welfare state unless the middle class is so over-taxed that they have to rely on government for healthcare, education, retirement, and just about everything else.

But that’s an issue for another day.

Let’s keep our focus on California secession, which I support both as a matter of self-determination and as a matter of public policy.

With regards to policy, I think it will be very interesting to see how a state with huge natural advantages (coast, weather, mineral resources, agricultural land, etc) can endure bad policy.

And there’s already plenty of bad policy in the state.

A big part of the problem is that the public sector in California is wildly overcompensated. Kevin Williamson explains.

State and local government spending adds up to nearly 20 percent of California’s economic output, while thriftier states such as Texas and New Hampshire spend less than 15 percent. …California’s government, like the federal government and most other state and local governments, spends its money on salaries, benefits, pensions, and other forms of employee compensation. The numbers are contentious — for obvious political reasons — but it is estimated that something between half and 80 percent of California’s state and local spending ultimately goes to employee compensation. …The first and smaller problem is that many government workers are paid too much. …The second and larger problem with public-sector workers is that there are a whole lot of them. …When politicians talk about “investments,” we think they mean bridges and research laboratories and canals to bring water to central California. But what they are investing in is dependency. In California, that means creating a lot of full-time jobs for Democrats.

But it’s not just that there are too many bureaucrats and that they are overpaid. They also become a big burden when they retire.

Here’s some additional evidence of the mess in California.

California is already paying $5.38 billion to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System this year, and in fiscal year 2018 the state will need to add at least $200 million more. By fiscal year 2024 the annual tab will increase at least $2 billion from current levels. This all comes on top of increases already scheduled under the system, according to Governor Jerry Brown’s finance department. …California’s revenue is volatile because it draws a large share of taxes from wealthy residents whose incomes are tied closely to the stock market. The top 1 percent of earners — who tend to own shares — accounted for nearly half of the state’s personal income-tax collections in 2014.

And the big tax hikes that will be imposed on the middle class will add to the misery they already suffer. Here’s more evidence of how the middle class is being eviscerated.

…the gap between what Californians pay versus the rest of the country has nearly doubled to about 50%. This translates into a staggering bill. Although California uses 2.6% less electricity annually from the power grid now than in 2008, residential and business customers together pay $6.8 billion more for power than they did then. …“California has this tradition of astonishingly bad decisions,” said McCullough, the energy consultant. “They build and charge the ratepayers. There’s nothing dishonest about it. There’s nothing complicated. It’s just bad planning.”

Victor David Hanson bemoans the outlook for his state.

The state is currently experiencing another perfect storm of increased crime, decreased incarceration, still ongoing illegal immigration, and record poverty. All that is energized by a strapped middle class that is still fleeing the overregulated and overtaxed state, while the arriving poor take their places in hopes of generous entitlements, jobs servicing the elite, and government employment. …Go to a U-Haul trailer franchise in the state. The rental-trailer-return rates of going into California are a fraction of those going out. Surely never in civilization’s history have so many been so willing to leave a natural paradise. …What makes the law-abiding leave California is not just the sanctimoniousness, the high taxes, or the criminality. It is always the insult added to injury. We suffer not only from the highest basket of income, sales, and gas taxes in the nation, but also from nearly the worst schools and infrastructure. We have the costliest entitlements and the most entitled.

Little wonder, as Hans Bader explains, businesses continue to flee the state.

Nestlé USA, “the maker of Häagen-Dazs, Baby Ruth, Lean Cuisine, and dozens of other mass brands,” is moving its U.S. headquarters from California to Virginia. It is among many businesses that have left California in recent years. In 2010, Northrop Grumman Corp. moved its headquarters out of California, leaving the state that gave birth to the aerospace industry without a single major military contractor based there. Last Spring, the parent company of Carl’s Jr., founded in Anaheim, California, 60 years ago, relocated its headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee, where there is no state income tax. …reported the San Jose Mercury News in June 2016. “During the 12 months ending June 30, the number of people leaving California for another state exceeded by 61,100 the number who moved here from elsewhere in the U.S., according to state Finance Department statistics. ‘They are tired of the expense of living here. They are tired of the state of California and the endless taxes here,’ said Scott McElfresh, a certified moving consultant. ‘People are getting soaked every time they turn around.’” …For businesses, the worst is yet to come. California is increasing its minimum wage over the next several years to $15 per hour.  …the increase will ultimately cost California 700,000 jobs. An economist at Moody’s calculated that 31,000 to 160,000 California manufacturing jobs will be lost. California taxes may rise further, to deal with a rising state budget deficit over the next decade. The deficit is rising in part due to California’s unusually high state welfare spending which grew about twice as fast in California in 2016 as in the U.S. as a whole. California also spends its transportation dollars very poorly, and it is wasting billions on a high-speed rail boondoggle that few people will ride.

Indeed, Bader’s column illustrates the real reason why CalExit almost certainly will lead to disaster. People and businesses will vote with their feet.

So unless the politicians in Sacramento decide to erect a barbed wire fence around the border (maybe we shouldn’t joke), the state’s feudalistic economic system will be unsustainable.

Though there is an alternative scenario. Perhaps independence will have a sobering effect on the state’s kleptocrats and they’ll recognize the importance of quasi-sensible policy once California is an independent nation.

This is a big reason why I’m sympathetic to independence movements in place such as Sardinia, Scotland, and Belgium.

When there are lots of competing jurisdictions, there’s pressure on all politicians to be rational stationary bandits rather than predatory roving bandits.

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When politicians create programs and announce projects, they routinely lie about the real costs. Their primary goal is to get initial approval for various boondoggles and they figure it will be too late to reverse path once it becomes apparent that something will cost for more than the initial low-ball estimates. Obamacare is a classic (and discouraging) example.

These “cost overruns” are very bad news for taxpayers, of course, but the system works very well for insiders. Bureaucrats get more money. Interest groups get more money. Government contractors get more money. Government consultants get more money. And some of that money gets funneled back to politicians in the form of campaign contributions, so they get more money as well.

This scam is particularly prevalent whenever politicians decide to build infrastructure. And there are lots of local examples in the Washington area.

But it’s definitely not limited to Washington. There are ridiculous examples of cost overruns elsewhere in the world.

And it goes without saying that places controlled by statists often produce the most absurd examples of wasteful boondoggles. Indeed, is there anyone in the world surprised to see this headline from a story in the Los Angeles Times?

Here are some of the details from the report.

A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis, obtained by The Times, projects that building bridges, viaducts, trenches and track from Merced to Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, could cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion, compared with the original budget of $6.4 billion. …The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule.

Over budget and overdue? Gee, who could have predicted that would happen with a government infrastructure project (other than every single person with an IQ above room temperature).

What happens next is unclear. The federal bureaucracy that disburses grants presumably wants to keep the gravy train on the tracks (pun intended), though hopefully Congress will tell California there won’t be any more federal handouts.

The Federal Railroad Administration is tracking the project because it has extended $3.5 billion in two grants to help build the Central Valley segment. …Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), chairman of the House rail subcommittee, said Friday… “Despite past issues with funding this boondoggle, we were repeatedly assured in an August field hearing that construction costs were under control,” he said in a statement. “They continue to reaffirm my belief that this is a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.” …About 80% of all bullet train systems incur massive overruns in their construction, according to Bent Flyvbjerg, an infrastructure risk expert at the University of Oxford who has studied such rail projects all over the world.

Unsurprisingly, the various interest groups that are feasting on this boondoggle want it to continue, whether the money comes from federal taxpayers or state taxpayers.

The California system is being built by an independent authority that has never built anything and depends on a large network of consultants and contractors for advice. …Proponents of the project, including many veteran transportation experts, have said that California’s massive economy can handle higher costs for the project — even more than $100 billion — by increasing sales taxes.

For what it’s worth, I don’t particularly care if California voters want to squander their own money and hasten the state’s economic decline.

But I’m very much against the idea that my income should be forcibly redistributed to support this foolish bit of pork. And this is why I’m very nervous about Donald Trump’s infatuation with infrastructure. Though since he hasn’t provided many details, so we don’t know whether he wants a business-as-usual expansion of pork or a much-needed expansion of private-sector involvement. But I’m not optimistic.

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I don’t often use the literary tactic of referring to something as the “best-ever.” Indeed, the only time that phrase appeared in the title of a column was back in 2014 when I smugly wrote about the collapse of government-run single-payer healthcare in Vermont. Recalling what Justice Brandeis wrote about states being the “laboratories of democracy,” I asserted that the disaster in the Green Mountain State taught the entire nation a valuable lesson about the dangers of bad policy and that this was the “best-ever argument for federalism.”

Well, it’s time to once again use this superlative because consumers in California get the “best-ever receipt” when they make purchases at Firearms Unknown. Here’s the example that’s gone viral, and I’ve highlighted the relevant portion that gives an amusing description of California’s onerous sales tax.

By the way, not everything you see on the Internet is true (yes, shocking news). And since the folks at Independent Journal Review didn’t want to make the mistake of sharing without checking (like I did when trying to mock Justin Trudeau), they actually did some due diligence.

Many times, viral photos are too good to be true. So we contacted Firearms Unknown in National City, CA, to find out if this was one of those times. Sure enough, a representative with Firearms Unknown confirmed the receipt’s authenticity to Independent Journal Review. Then, he let out a chuckle. I guess if you’re going to operate a gun shop in a far-left state like California, you better have a good sense of humor. Bravo, Firearms Unknown.

Yes, kudos to the store, but I also want to take this opportunity to make a serious point about tax visibility.

One of the many reasons to oppose a value-added tax is that the tax almost always is hidden from consumers. When taxpayers make purchases in Europe, they don’t know that VATs are responsible, on average, for about 21 percent of the purchase price.

So it’s good that consumers in America know there’s a sales tax, both because it’s visible on their receipts and also because they can see the difference between the price on the shelf and the price at the cash register.

Though this system isn’t perfect. How many Americans, after all, know how much sales tax they paid last year?

The visibility issue also exists with the income tax. In theory, we all know what we paid the previous year based on our annual tax returns. But because of withholding, most Americans don’t really pay attention to that very important number and instead focus on whether they’re getting a refund. They actually think a big refund is a great outcome, even though it simply means that they gave the government an interest-free loan by over-paying their taxes during the year!

This is one of the reasons why I’m such a big fan of Hong Kong, in part because of the flat tax. Not only is there a low rate and no double taxation, but there’s also no withholding. Instead, taxpayers write checks to the government twice annually. So they are fully aware of the cost of government, which may explain why the fiscal burden of government is relatively low (it also helps that there is a constitutional spending cap).

In the United States, the only levies that are visible (at least some of the time) are property taxes. Taxpayers usually have to make annual or semiannual payments on cars and houses (though property taxes on homes are sometimes built into mortgage payments).

And when you have to write a lump-sum check to the government, that’s a wonderful opportunity for people to ponder whether they’re actually getting good value for their money.

And since the answer almost always is no, it’s easy to understand why politicians are big fans of policies (such as VATs and withholding) that disguise the burden of taxation.

P.S. In the body of previous columns, I have used the “best-ever” superlative a handful of times.

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I’m very happy that we don’t have a one-world government, but my views have nothing to do with conspiratorial fears involving blue helmets and black helicopters.

Instead, I’m happy that there are lots of independent nations because that means lots of different approaches to public policy. And that means we have lots of real-life experiments about the relative merits of big government vs small government.

And this brings me joy because the evidence overwhelmingly shows that you get much better results when the size and scope of government is constrained.

Just compare France and Switzerland. Or look at the wreckage of communism. Or consider the prosperity of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Heck, I’ve put together all sorts of long-run comparisons to show that free markets produce much better results than statism.

This is also why I like federalism inside a nation. I think this decentralized approach leads to better policy, as we can see from Switzerland.

But it also means I have another set of real-life experiments about public policy.  And, once again, this brings a smile to my face because the data clearly show the negative consequences of big government.

It’s especially amusing to compare California and Texas. The Golden State is a playground for statist policies, including the highest income tax in the nation. The Lone Star State, by contrast, is famous for its laissez-faire approach and it doesn’t have any income tax.

And if you look at income data, we have very clear evidence that living standards are climbing much faster in Texas, particularly for the middle class.

I’m certainly not the only person to notice that there’s a clear link between good policy and good results.

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, Vance Ginn of the Texas Public Policy Foundation compares Texas and California. He starts by noting that the Lone Star State and the Golden State share some common characteristics.

Texas and California…contribute 25% of U.S. economic output, have similar abundances of natural resources, and are where 20% of Americans reside.

But that’s where the similarity ends. California almost surely wins the battle for which state has the best climate and scenery, but Texas is way ahead when you measure economic freedom.

Texas has low taxes, no personal income tax, and less regulation, versus California’s high taxes, highest marginal personal income tax rate nationwide, and burdensome regulations. The Economic Freedom of North America report…ranks Texas as the third most free state and California as second worst. The Tax Foundation ranks Texas as having the 14th best business tax climate while California ranks third worst.

Vance then addresses the left-wing stereotype that Texas is a poverty-stricken backwater.

He looks at various measures and finds that Texas always comes out on top. There’s more poverty in California.

What about poverty? Taking the average over the 2013 to 2015 period, the Census Bureau provides the official poverty rate of 16.1% in Texas and 15% in California, which suggests that the critics are right. However, that rate doesn’t account for regional differences in housing costs or noncash government assistance. The supplemental poverty rate includes these factors and instead finds a rate of 14.9% in Texas while California has the highest rate nationwide at 20.6%.

But there’s more income in Texas.

What about real income? Average nominal median household income from 2010 to 2014 (in 2014 dollars) in California ($61,489) is 17% higher and nationwide ($53,482) is 1.7% higher than in Texas ($52,576). But, the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ regional price parities data for 2014 show that the cost of living for California is 17% higher and the U.S. average is 3.5% higher than in Texas. Therefore, real income in Texas purchases as much as in California and even more when you consider that Texas doesn’t have a personal income tax.

Vance then points out that there is more income inequality in California, which I generally think is an irrelevant measure.

In this case, though, it probably does matter because bad policy is causing disproportionate harm for the poor and middle class in California.

The column also looks at the jobs data (which will cause special angst for Paul Krugman).

In the last decade, Texas has been the economic and job creation engine as the real private sector expanded 29% in Texas compared with only 14% in California. Moreover, total civilian employment increased 1.2 million in California but 1.7 million in Texas, with a labor force two-thirds the size of California’s. This increase in Texas’ employment accounts for nearly one-third of all jobs created nationwide.

So what’s the moral of the story?

Vance closes his column with some very appropriate advice for the incoming Trump Administration.

The more you tax and regulate something, the less you get of it. Clearly, less government contributes to higher standards of living in Texas. …As the new administration and policymakers nationwide reassess which direction to take, it’s important to remember that spending is the disease and taxes are a function of that disease. Restraining spending growth while following the Texas model of free market capitalism would be an excellent way to get the economy, and personal finances, back on track.

None of this means policy is perfect in Texas, needless to say. There are several ways that policy could be improved.

But if you’re looking for general lessons about the relative merits of big government vs. small government, both Texas and California are role models. They teach us lessons about job creation. About business climate. About government efficiency. And about labor mobility. And the lesson is always the same: You get better results when government is smaller and less intrusive.

Last but not least, there’s even a very amusing joke about California, Texas, and a coyote.

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The concept of secession (part of a jurisdiction breaking away to become independent) has a bad reputation in the United States because it is linked to the reprehensible institution of slavery.

But, as Walter Williams has explained, secession today may be an effective way of protecting liberty from ever-expanding centralized government.

And I’ve favorably written about secessionist movements in Sardinia, Scotland, and Belgium, largely because the historical data shows that better policy is more likely when there are many jurisdictions competing with each other.

So it was with considerable interest that I saw an article in Fortune about a secessionist movement in California.

“Calexit” didn’t start with Donald Trump, but his victory on Election Day certainly sparked more interest in the idea. A play on “Brexit,” it’s the new name for the prospect of California seceding from the U.S. The movement…seems to have gained steam in the past six months, thanks in part to the U.K.’s recent Brexit vote and Donald Trump being elected president. …The group’s goal is to hold a referendum in 2018 that, if passed, would transition California into its own independent country. …the movement has even grabbed the attention of some potential Silicon Valley bankrollers.

I like this idea, though I’m not sure it’s good for California since the state faces very serious long-run challenges.

Though this is one of the reasons I like secession. As an independent nation, California no longer would have any hope of getting a bailout from Washington, so the politicians in Sacramento might start behaving more responsibly.

And there are examples of secession in the modern world, such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic emerging from Czechoslovakia. That was a very tranquil divorce, unlike what happened in the former Yugoslavia.

As is so often the case, we can learn a lot from Switzerland. There is a right of secession, albeit dependent on a nationwide vote of approval. Municipalities also can vote to switch cantons, as happened in 1996 when Vellerat left Bern and became part of Jura. By the way, villages in Liechtenstein have the unilateral right to secede from the rest of the nation (though that seems highly unlikely since it is the second-richest nation in the world).

Notwithstanding these good role models, the secessionist movement in California presumably won’t get very far.

But maybe full-blown secession isn’t necessary. If Californians don’t like what’s happening in Washington (or, for that matter, if Texans aren’t happy with the antics in DC), that should be an argument for genuine and comprehensive federalism.

In other words, get rid of the one-size-fits-all policies emanating from the central government and allow states to decide the size and scope of government.

California can decide to do crazy things (such as regulate babysitters and give bureaucrats too much pay) and Texas can choose to do sane things (such as no income tax), but neither state could dictate policy for the entire nation.

This also happens to be the system envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers.

Think of federalism as a live-and-let-live system. New York doesn’t have to become North Dakota and Illinois doesn’t have to become Alabama. Red states can be red and blue states can be blue. And we can add all the other colors in the rainbow as well. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that.

And consider how well federalism works in Switzerland, a nation that doesn’t have a single language, culture, or religion.

Now, perhaps, you’ll understand why I even suggested federalism as a solution to the mess in Ukraine.

P.S. If California actually chooses to move forward with secession, the good news is that we already have a template (albeit satirical) for a national divorce in the United States.

P.P.S. Here’s an interesting historical footnote. There’s a small part of Germany that is entirely surrounded by Switzerland. This enclave wanted to become part of Switzerland many decades ago, but there was no right of secession notwithstanding overwhelming sentiment for a shift of nationality.

A whopping 96 percent of the inhabitants voted for annexation by Switzerland. The people had spoken loud and clear, but their voices were ignored. As the Swiss were unable to offer Germany any suitable territory in exchange, the deal was off. Büsingen would remain, somewhat reluctantly, German.

Since Germany is a reasonably well-run nation, I guess we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the people of Büsingen (unlike, say, the residents of Menton and Roquebrune in France, who used to be part of a tax haven but now are part of a tax hell).

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with some additional election-related humor.

Here’s some satire from the twitter account of the fake North Korean News Service.

And here’s another Hitler parody to add to our collection.

And here’s Michelle Obama feeling sad about what’s about to happen.

P.P.P.P.S. We also have some unintentional humor. When Trump prevailed, Paul Krugman couldn’t resist making a prediction of economic doom.

Since markets have since climbed to record highs, Krugman’s forecasting ability may be even worse than all the hacks who predicted Brexit would result in economic calamity for the United Kingdom.

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I shared a very amusing column last year about “a modest proposal” to reduce income inequality.

Written tongue-in-cheek by David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation, the premise was that society could be made more “fair” by exiling – or perhaps even selling to the highest bidder – America’s richest people.

David’s piece cleverly made the point that such a policy would dramatically lower inequality, but would do nothing to boost the living standards of poor people. Indeed, when you consider all the damage that would be caused if America lost its top entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners, lower-income people obviously would suffer immense hardship as the economy shrank.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that Hillary Clinton read his article. Or, if she did, she obviously didn’t learn anything. Her agenda, which is echoed by almost all leftists, is endlessly higher taxes to fight the supposed scourge of inequality.

I’ve always thought inequality was the wrong target. If politicians really cared about the less fortunate, they would instead focus on growth in order the reduce poverty.

But our friends on the left apparently believe (or, if they’re familiar with historical data, they pretend to believe) that the economy is a fixed pie. So if someone in the top-1 percent, top-5 percent, top-10 percent, or top-20 percent gets more money, then the rest of us must have less money.

Heck, they don’t even understand the data that they like to cite. Writing for National Review, Thomas Sowell debunks many of the left’s most-cherished talking points about inequality.

When we hear about how much more income the top 20 percent of households make, compared with the bottom 20 percent of households, one key fact is usually left out. There are millions more people in the top 20 percent of households than in the bottom 20 percent of households. …In 2002, there were 40 million people in the bottom 20 percent of households and 69 million people in the top 20 percent. A little over half of the households in the bottom 20 percent have nobody working. You don’t usually get a lot of income for doing nothing. In 2010, there were more people working full-time in the top 5 percent of households than in the bottom 20 percent. …Household income statistics can be very misleading in other ways. …The number of people per American household has declined over the years. When you compare household incomes from a year when there were 6 people per household with a later year when there were 4 people per household, you are comparing apples and oranges. Even if income per person increased 25 percent between those two years, average household income statistics will nevertheless show a decline.  …household income statistics can show an economic decline, even when per capita income has risen.

My Cato Institute colleague, Mike Tanner, has a must-read comprehensive study on inequality that was just released today. Here are some of the parts I found especially enlightening, starting with a very important passage from his introduction.

…contrary to stereotypes, the wealthy tend to earn rather than inherit their wealth… Most rich people got that way by providing us with goods and services that improve our lives. Income mobility may be smaller than we would like, but people continue to move up and down the income ladder. Few fortunes survive for multiple generations, while the poor are still able to rise out of poverty. More important, there is little relationship between inequality and poverty. The fact that some people become wealthy does not mean that others will become poor.

Mike then spends a few pages debunking Thomas Piketty (granted, an easy target, but still a necessary task) and pointing out that some folks overstate inequality.

But more importantly, he then points out that there is still considerable income mobility in the United States. Rich people often don’t stay rich and poor people frequently don’t stay poor.

…wealth often dissipates across generations; research shows that the wealth accumulated by some intrepid entrepreneur or businessperson rarely survives long. In many cases, as much as 70 percent has evaporated by the end of the second generation and as much as 90 percent by the end of the third. Even over the shorter term, the composition of the top 1 percent often changes dramatically. If history is any guide, roughly 56 percent of those in the top income quintile can expect to drop out of it within 20 years. …of those on the first edition of the Forbes 400 in 1982, only 34 remain on the 2014 list, and only 24 have appeared on every list. …At the same time, it remains possible for the poor to become rich, or, if not rich, at least not poor. Studies show that roughly half of those who begin in the bottom quintile move up to a higher quintile within 10 years. …And their children can expect to rise even further. One out of every five children born to parents in the bottom income quintile will reach one of the top two quintiles in adulthood.

Here’s his graph with the relevant data.

Mike also debunks that notion that poor people are poor because rich people are rich.

…it is important to note that poverty and inequality are not the same thing. Indeed, if we were to double everyone’s income tomorrow, we would do much to reduce poverty, but the gap between rich and poor would grow larger. Would this be a bad thing? …The idea that gains by one person necessarily mean losses by another reflects a zero-sum view of the economy that is simply untethered to history or economics. The economy is not fixed in size, with the only question being one of distribution. Rather, the entire pie can grow, with more resources available to all.

His study is filled with all sorts of data, but this graph may be the most important tidbit.

It shows that the poverty rate has remained relatively constant, oscillating around 14 percent, during the period when the so-called top-1 percent were generating large amounts of additional income.

Mike then spends some time agreeing that inequality can be bad if it is the result of subsidies, bailouts, protectionism, and handouts.

Amen. Rich people deserve their money if they earn it in the marketplace. But if they get rich via TARP bailouts, Ex-Im Bank subsidies, protectionist barriers, green-energy boondoggles, or some other form of cronyism, that’s reprehensible and unjustified.

Most important of all, he closes by explaining that inequality isn’t what’s important. Policy should be focused on reducing poverty, which means more economic growth.

There are…two ways to reduce inequality. One can attempt to bring the bottom up by reducing poverty, or one can bring the top down by, in effect, punishing the rich. Traditionally, we have tried to reduce inequality by taxing the rich and redistributing that money to the poor. …Despite the United States spending roughly a trillion dollars each year on antipoverty programs at all levels of government, by the official poverty measure we have done little to reduce poverty. …we are unlikely to see significant reductions in poverty without strong economic growth. Punishing the segment of society that most contributes to such growth therefore seems a poor policy for serious poverty reduction. …While inequality per se may not be a problem, poverty is. …policies designed to reduce inequality by imposing new burdens on the wealthy may perversely harm the poor by slowing economic growth and reducing job opportunities.

Exactly. The notion that we can help the poor by making America more like a high-tax European-style welfare state is laughable.

By every possible standard, the United States is out-pacing Europe in terms of jobs and growth. And what’s really remarkable is that this is happening even though Obamanomics has given us the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. Imagine how big the gap would be if we has the kind of market-oriented policies that dominated the Reagan and Clinton years!

Let’s close with a very amusing bit of data about inequality from a report in the New York Times.

The author looked at income changes in each state between 1990 and 2014 at all levels of income distribution.

By looking at the state level, we’re delineating the rich and poor within that state. Which is to say that the 90th percentile of personal income in Arkansas will not be the same as the 90th percentile of personal income in New York. This calculation helps us avoid making unfair comparisons of income between places with different costs of living.

Since I wrote just two days ago about the importance of adjusting state income data to reflect the cost of living, I obviously view this as a useful exercise.

But here’s the part that grabbed my attention. As I was reviewing the various charts for all the states, I noticed that inequality has expanded dramatically in the most infamous left-wing states. And usually not simply because rich people got richer faster than poor people got richer. In New York, Illinois, and California, rich people were the only winners.

Yet if you look at Kansas (which is the favorite whipping boy of the left because of Gov. Brownback’s big tax cuts) or the stereotypical red state of Texas, you’ll notice the lower-income and middle-income people did much better.

I guess we can use this data as additional evidence of how statist policies cause inequality.

Best of all, it was in the New York Times, so our leftist friends will have a hard time reflexively dismissing the data. It’s always good when the other side scores an “own goal.”

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Something doesn’t add up. People like me have been explaining that California is an example of policies to avoid. Depending on my mood, I’ll refer to the state as the France, Italy, or Greece of the United States.

But folks on the left are making the opposite argument.

A writer for the Huffington Post tells readers that California is proof that the blue-state model can work.

Many factors contribute to California’s preeminence; one being its liberalism. Republicans don’t like to acknowledge California’s success. …The state’s job growth outpaced the nation’s in the first nine months of last year. California’s non-farm employment of 15.7 million people is at an all-time high. …California’s economy has thrived in spite of relatively high taxes and stringent regulations.

Meanwhile, a couple of columnists for the Washington Post are doing a victory dance based on recent California numbers.

…the…experiences of California…run counter to a popular view, particularly among conservative economists, that tax cuts tend to supercharge growth and tax increases chill it. California’s economy grew by 4.1 percent in 2015, according to new numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, tying it with Oregon for the fastest state growth of the year. That was up from 3.1 percent growth for the Golden State in 2014, which was near the top of the national pack. …almost no one can say that raising taxes on the rich killed that recovery.

And let’s not forget that Paul Krugman attacked me two years ago for failing to acknowledge the supposed success story of job creation in California. I thought he made a very silly argument since the Golden State at that time had the 5th-highest unemployment rate in the nation.

But Krugman and the other statists cited above do have a semi-accurate point. There are some statistics showing that California has out-performed many other states over the past couple of years. Let’s look at the numbers. The St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank has a helpful website filled with all sorts of economic data, including figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis on per-capita income in states.

I selected California for the obvious reason, but also Texas (since it’s often seen as the quintessential “red state”) and Kansas (which has become infamous for a big tax cut). And, lo and behold, if you look at what’s happened to per-capita income in those states, California has enjoyed the most growth.

Is this evidence that high taxes and a big welfare state are good for growth?

Hardly. California’s numbers only look decent because the state fell into a deep hole during the recession. And, generally speaking, a severe recession almost always is followed by good numbers, even if an economy is simply getting back to where it started.

So let’s expand on the above numbers and look at what’s happened not just over the past five years, but also since 2000 and 2005.

And if you look at California’s relative performance over a 10-year period or 15-year period, all of a sudden the Golden State looks a bit tarnished.

By the way, these numbers are not adjusted for either inflation or for cost of living. The former presumably doesn’t matter for our purposes since changing to inflation-adjusted dollars wouldn’t alter the rankings. Meanwhile, the data on cost of living would matter for comparative living standards (for instance, $46,745 in Texas probably buys more than $52,651 in California), but remember that we’re focusing on changes in per-capita income (i.e., which state is enjoying the most growth, regardless of starting point or how much money can buy in that state).

In any event, the numbers clearly show there’s more long-run growth in Texas and Kansas, and it’s long-run growth rates that really matter if you want more prosperity and higher living standards for people.

But let’s not stop there. Our left-wing friends frequently tell us that per-capita income numbers are sometimes a poor measure of overall prosperity since a few rich people can skew the average.

It’s better, they tell us, to look at median household income since that’s a measure of the well-being of ordinary people. And we can get those numbers (only through 2014, though adjusted for inflation) from the Census Bureau. What does this data show for Texas, California, and Kansas?

As you can see, California is in last place, regardless of whether the starting point is 2000, 2005, or 2010. In other words, California may have enjoyed some decent growth in recent years as it got a bit of a bounce from its deep recession, but it appears that the benefits of that growth have mostly gone to the Hollywood crowd and the Silicon Valley folks. I guess this is the left-wing version of “trickle down” economics.

Perhaps most interesting, the short-run numbers show that tax-cutting Kansas has a comfortable lead over tax-hiking California.

If that trend continues, then over time we can expect that the long-run numbers will begin to diverge as well.

Let’s close by looking at some analysis about those two states for those who want some additional perspective.

Victor David Hanson, a native Californian, has a pessimistic assessment of his state. Here’s some of what he wrote for Real Clear Politics.

The basket of California state taxes — sales, income and gasoline — rates among the highest in the U.S. Yet California roads and K-12 education rank near the bottom. …One in three American welfare recipients resides in California. Almost a quarter of the state population lives below or near the poverty line. …the state’s gas and electricity prices are among the nation’s highest. …Current state-funded pension programs are not sustainable. California depends on a tiny elite class for about half of its income tax revenue. Yet many of these wealthy taxpayers are fleeing the 40-million-person state, angry over paying 12 percent of their income for lousy public services. …Connecticut and Alabama combined in one state. A house in Menlo Park may sell for more than $1,000 a square foot. In Madera three hours away, the cost is about one-tenth of that. In response, state government practices escapism, haggling over transgendered restroom issues and the aquatic environment of a 3-inch baitfish rather than dealing with a sinking state.

The bottom line is that he fears the trend line for his state is moving in the wrong direction.

John Hood takes a look at why the Kansas tax cuts have resulted in budget turmoil, while tax cuts in has state of North Carolina haven’t caused much controversy.

How did Kansas and North Carolina end up in such different conditions? For one thing, while the two states both enacted major tax cuts, they weren’t structured the same way. Kansas punched a large hole in its income-tax base by excluding self-employment income. North Carolina briefly created a version of this exclusion in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, but then wisely eliminated it in favor of applying a low, uniform tax rate on a broad base of personal income. In Kansas, lawmakers also allowed themselves to be bamboozled by some out-of-state tax “experts” claiming that cutting income taxes would generate so much new investment, entrepreneurship, and population growth that the revenue loss to the state would be substantially offset. This can actually be true, of course — in the very long run, counted in decades. In the short run of state budgeting, however, policymakers are better off making far more conservative assumptions about revenue feedbacks. …Our state policymakers didn’t just reduce and reform taxes. They also controlled expenditures. Since the enactment of the 2013 tax changes, their authorized budgets have never pushed spending growth above the combined rates of inflation and population growth. Actual spending, in fact, has often come in below even these budgeted amounts.

John’s message is that pro-growth tax cuts don’t generate overnight miracles. Lawmakers have to be prudent when calculating Laffer Curve feedback. And they also should make sure there is concomitant restraint on the spending side of the budget.

The bottom line is that the Kansas tax cuts are good for the state’s economy, but they might not be sustainable unless politicians don’t quickly make reforms to cap spending.

P.S. Closing with some California-specific humor, this Chuck Asay cartoon speculates on how future archaeologists will view California. This Michael Ramirez cartoon looks at the impact of the state’s class-warfare tax policy. And this joke about Texas, California, and a coyote is among my most-viewed blog posts.

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