Archive for the ‘Competitiveness’ Category

I have a love-hate relationship with corporations.

On the plus side, I admire corporations that efficiently and effectively compete by producing valuable goods and services for consumers, and I aggressively defend those firms from politicians who want to impose harmful and destructive forms of taxes, regulation, and intervention.

On the minus side, I am disgusted by corporations that get in bed with politicians to push policies that undermine competition and free markets, and I strongly oppose all forms of cronyism and coercion that give big firms unearned and undeserved wealth.

With this in mind, let’s look at two controversies from the field of corporate taxation, both involving the European Commission (the EC is the Brussels-based bureaucracy that is akin to an executive branch for the European Union).

First, there’s a big fight going on between the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC. As reported by Bloomberg, it’s a battle over whether European governments should be able to impose higher tax burdens on American-domiciled multinationals.

The U.S. is stepping up its effort to convince the European Commission to refrain from hitting Apple Inc. and other companies with demands for possibly billions of euros… In a white paper released Wednesday, the Treasury Department in Washington said the Brussels-based commission is taking on the role of a “supra-national tax authority” that has the scope to threaten global tax reform deals. …The commission has initiated investigations into tax rulings that Apple, Starbucks Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. received in separate EU nations. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has written previously that the investigations appear “to be targeting U.S. companies disproportionately.” The commission’s spokesman said Wednesday that EU law “applies to all companies operating in Europe — there is no bias against U.S. companies.”

As you can imagine, I have a number of thoughts about this spat.

  • First, don’t give the Obama Administration too much credit for being on the right side of the issue. The Treasury Department is motivated in large part by a concern that higher taxes imposed by European governments would mean less ability to collect tax by the U.S. government.
  • Second, complaints by the US about a “supra-national tax authority” are extremely hypocritical since the Obama White House has signed the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which effectively would create a nascent World Tax Organization (the pact is thankfully being blocked by Senator Rand Paul).
  • Third, hypocrisy by the US doesn’t change the fact that the European Commission bureaucrats are in the wrong because their argument is based on the upside-down notion that low tax burdens are a form of “state aid.”
  • Fourth, Europeans are in the wrong because the various national governments should simply adjust their “transfer pricing” rules if they think multinational companies are playing games to under-state profits in high-tax nations and over-state profits in low-tax nations.
  • Fifth, the Europeans are in the wrong because low corporate tax rates are the best way to curtail unproductive forms of tax avoidance.
  • Sixth, some European nations are in the wrong if they don’t allow domestic companies to enjoy the low tax rates imposed on multinational firms.

Since we’re on the topic of corporate tax rates and the European Commission, let’s shift from Brussels to Geneva and see an example of good tax policy in action. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report about how a Swiss canton is responding in the right way to an attack by the EC.

When the European Union pressured Switzerland to scrap tax breaks for foreign companies, Geneva had most to lose. Now, the canton that’s home to almost 1,000 multinationals is set to use tax to burnish its appeal. Geneva will on Aug. 30 propose cutting its corporate tax rate to 13.49 percent from 24.2 percent…the new regime will improve the Swiss city’s competitive position, according to Credit Suisse Group AG. “I could see Geneva going up very high in the ranks,” said Thierry Boitelle, a lawyer at Bonnard Lawson in the city. …A rate of about 13 percent would see Geneva jump 13 places to become the third-most attractive of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

This puts a big smile on my face.

Geneva is basically doing the same thing Ireland did many years ago when it also was attacked by Brussels for having a very low tax rate on multinational firms while taxing domestic firms at a higher rate.

The Irish responded to the assault by implementing a very low rate for all businesses, regardless of whether they were local firms or global firms. And the Irish economy benefited immensely.

Now it’s happening again, which must be very irritating for the bureaucrats in Brussels since the attack on Geneva (just like the attack on Ireland) was designed to force tax rates higher rather than lower.

As a consequence, in one fell swoop, Geneva will now be one of the most competitive cantons in Switzerland.

Here’s another reason I’m smiling.

The Geneva reform will put even more pressure on the tax-loving French.

France, which borders the canton to the south, east and west, has a tax rate of 33.33 percent… Within Europe, Geneva’s rate would only exceed a number of smaller economies such as Ireland’s 12.5 percent and Montenegro, which has the region’s lowest rate of 9 percent. That will mean Geneva competes with Ireland, the Netherlands and the U.K. as a low-tax jurisdiction.

Though the lower tax rate in Geneva is not a sure thing.

We’ll have to see if local politicians follow through on this announcement. And there also may be a challenge from left-wing voters, something made possible by Switzerland’s model of direct democracy.

Opposition to the new rate from left-leaning political parties will probably trigger a referendum as it would only require 500 signatures.

Though I suspect the “sensible Swiss” of Geneva will vote the right way, at least if the results from an adjoining canton are any indication.

In a March plebiscite in the neighboring canton of Vaud, 87.1 percent of voters backed cutting the corporate tax rate to 13.79 percent from 21.65 percent.

So I fully expect voters in Geneva will make a similarly wise choice, especially since they are smart enough to realize that high tax rates won’t collect much money if the geese with the golden eggs fly away.

Failure to agree on a competitive tax rate in Geneva could result in an exodus of multinationals, cutting cantonal revenues by an even greater margin, said Denis Berdoz, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Geneva, who specializes in tax and corporate law. “They don’t really have a choice,” said Berdoz. “If the companies leave, the loss could be much higher.”

In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

Now let’s understand why the development in Geneva is a good thing (and why the EC effort to impose higher taxes on US-based multinational is a bad thing).

Simply stated, high corporate tax burdens are bad for workers and the overall economy.

In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute consider the benefits of a less punitive corporate tax system.

They start with the theoretical case.

If the next president has a plan to increase wages that is based on well-documented and widely accepted empirical evidence, he should have little trouble finding bipartisan support. …Fortunately, such a plan exists. …both parties should unite and demand a cut in corporate tax rates. The economic theory behind this proposition is uncontroversial. More productive workers earn higher wages. Workers become more productive when they acquire better skills or have better tools. Lower corporate rates create the right incentives for firms to give workers better tools.

Then they unload a wealth of empirical evidence.

What proof is there that lower corporate rates equal higher wages? Quite a lot. In 2006 we co-wrote the first empirical study on the direct link between corporate taxes and manufacturing wages. …Our empirical analysis, which used data we gathered on international tax rates and manufacturing wages in 72 countries over 22 years, confirmed that the corporate tax is for the most part paid by workers. …There has since been a profusion of research that confirms that workers suffer when corporate tax rates are higher. In a 2007 paper Federal Reserve economist Alison Felix used data from the Luxembourg Income Study, which tracks individual incomes across 30 countries, to show that a 10% increase in corporate tax rates reduces wages by about 7%. In a 2009 paper Ms. Felix found similar patterns across the U.S., where states with higher corporate tax rates have significantly lower wages. …Harvard University economists Mihir Desai, Fritz Foley and Michigan’s James R. Hines have studied data from American multinational firms, finding that their foreign affiliates tend to pay significantly higher wages in countries with lower corporate tax rates. A study by Nadja Dwenger, Pia Rattenhuber and Viktor Steiner found similar patterns across German regions… Canadian economists Kenneth McKenzie and Ergete Ferede. They found that wages in Canadian provinces drop by more than a dollar when corporate tax revenue is increased by a dollar.

So what’s the moral of the story?

It’s very simple.

…higher wages are relatively easy to stimulate for a nation. One need only cut corporate tax rates. Left and right leaning countries have done this over the past two decades, including Japan, Canada and Germany. Yet in the U.S. we continue to undermine wage growth with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

The Tax Foundation echoes this analysis, noting that even the Paris-based OECD has acknowledged that corporate taxes are especially destructive on a per-dollar-raised basis.

In a landmark 2008 study Tax and Economic Growth, economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) determined that the corporate income tax is the most harmful tax for economic growth. …The study also found that statutory corporate tax rates have a negative effect on firms that are in the “process of catching up with the productivity performance of the best practice firms.” This suggests that “lowering statutory corporate tax rates can lead to particularly large productivity gains in firms that are dynamic and profitable, i.e. those that can make the largest contribution to GDP growth.”

Sadly, there’s often a gap between the analysis of the professional economists at the OECD and the work of the left-leaning policy-making divisions of that international bureaucracy.

The OECD has been a long-time advocate of schemes to curtail tax competition and in recent years even has concocted a “base erosion and profit shifting” initiative designed to boost the tax burden on businesses.

In a study for the Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal Issues (also based, coincidentally, in Paris), Pierre Bessard and Fabio Cappelletti analyze the harmful impact of corporate taxation and the unhelpful role of the OECD.

…the latest years have been marked by an abundance of proposals to reform national tax codes to patch these alleged “loopholes”. Among them, the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting package (BEPS) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the most alarming one because of its global ambition. …The OECD thereby assumes, without any substantiation, that the corporate income tax is both just and an efficient way for governments to collect revenue.

Pierre and Fabio point out that the OECD’s campaign to impose heavier taxes on business is actually just a back-door way of imposing a higher burden on individuals.

…the whole value created by corporations is sooner or later transferred to various individuals, may it be as dividends (for owners and shareholders), interest payments (for lenders), wages (for employees) and payments for the provided goods and services (for suppliers). Second, corporations as such do not pay taxes. …at the end of the day the burden of any tax levied on them has to be carried by an individual.

This doesn’t necessarily mean there shouldn’t be a corporate tax (in nations that decide to tax income). After all, it is administratively simpler to tax a company than to track down potentially thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of shareholders.

But it’s rather important to consider the structure of the corporate tax system. Is it a simple system that taxes economic activity only one time based on cash flow? Or does it have various warts, such as double taxation and deprecation, that effectively result in much higher tax rates on productive behavior?

Most nations unfortunately go with the latter approach (with place such as Estonia and Hong Kong being admirable exceptions). And that’s why, as Pierre and Fabio explain, the corporate income tax is especially harmful.

…the general consensus is that the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the corporate income tax is much higher than the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the personal income tax… This is due to the corporate income tax generating additional distortions. … Calls by the OECD and other bodies to standardize corporate tax rules and increase tax revenue in high-tax countries in effect would equate to calls for higher prices for consumers, lower wages for workers and lower returns for pension funds. Corporate taxes also depress available capital for investment and therefore productivity and wage growth, holding back purchasing power. In addition, the deadweight losses arising from corporate income taxation are particularly high. They include lobbying for preferential rates and treatments, diverting attention and resources from production and wealth creation, and distorting decisions in corporate financing and the choice of organizational form.

From my perspective, the key takeaway is that income taxes are always bad for prosperity, but the real question is whether they somewhat harmful or very harmful. So let’s close with some very depressing news about how America’s system ranks in that regard.

The Tax Foundation has just produced a very helpful map showing corporate tax rates around the world. All you need to know about the American system is that dark green is very bad (i.e., a corporate tax rate that is way above the average) and dark blue is very good.

And to make matters worse, the high tax rate is just part of the problem. A German think tank produced a study that looked at other major features of business taxation and concluded that the United States ranked #94 out of 100 nations.

It would be bad to have a high rate with a Hong Kong-designed corporate tax structure. But we have something far worse, a high rate with what could be considered a French-designed corporate tax structure.

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If you get into the weeds of tax policy and had a contest for parts of the internal revenue code that are “boring but important,” depreciation would be at the top of the list. After all, how many people want to learn about America’s Byzantine system that imposes a discriminatory tax penalty on new investment? Yes, it’s a self-destructive policy that imposes a lot of economic damage, but even I’ll admit it’s not a riveting topic (though I tried to make it culturally relevant by using ABBA as an example).

In second place would be a policy called “deferral,” which deals with a part of the law that allows companies to delay an extra layer of tax that the IRS imposes on income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other countries. It is “boring but important” because it has major implications on the ability of American-domiciled firms to compete for market share overseas.

Here’s a video that explains the issue, though feel free to skip it and continue reading if you already are familiar with how the law works.

The simple way to think of this eye-glazing topic is that “deferral” is a good policy that partially mitigates the impact of a bad policy known as “worldwide taxation.”

Unfortunately, good policy tends to be unpopular in Washington. This is why deferral (and related issues such as inversions, which occur for the simple reason that worldwide taxation creates a huge competitive disadvantage for U.S.-domiciled companies) is playing an unusually large role in the 2016 election and concomitant tax debates.

Consider the tax controversy involving Apple. The CEO does not want to surrender money that belongs to shareholders to the government.

Apple CEO Tim Cook struck back at critics of the iPhone maker’s strategy to avoid paying U.S. taxes, telling The Washington Post in a wide ranging interview that the company would not bring that money back from abroad unless there was a “fair rate.”

Since the discussion is about income that Apple has earned in other nations (and therefore about income that already has been subject to all applicable taxes in other nations), the only “fair rate” from the United States is zero.

That’s because good tax systems are based on “territorial taxation” rather than “worldwide taxation.”

Though a worldwide tax system might not impose that much damage if a nation had a low corporate tax rate.

Unfortunately, that’s not a good description of the U.S. system, which has a very high rate, thus creating a big incentive to hold money overseas to avoid having to pay a very hefty second layer of tax to the IRS on income that already has been subject to tax by foreign governments.

Along with other multinational companies, the tech giant has been subject to criticism over a tax strategy that allows them to shelter profits made abroad from the U.S. corporate tax rate, which at 35 percent is among the highest in the developed world.

“Among”? I don’t know if this is a sign of bias or ignorance on the part of CNBC, but the U.S. unquestionably has the highest corporate tax rate among developed nations.

Indeed, it might even be the highest in the entire world.

Anyhow, Mr. Cook points out that there’s nothing patriotic about needlessly paying extra tax to the IRS, especially when it would mean a very punitive tax rate.

…a few particularly strident critics have lambasted Apple as a tax dodger. …While some proponents of the higher U.S. tax rate say it’s unpatriotic for companies to practice inversions or shelter income, Cook hit back at the suggestion. “It is the current tax law. It’s not a matter of being patriotic or not patriotic,” Cook told The Post in a lengthy sit-down. “It doesn’t go that the more you pay, the more patriotic you are.” …Cook added that “when we bring it back, we will pay 35 percent federal tax and then a weighted average across the states that we’re in, which is about 5 percent, so think of it as 40 percent. We’ve said at 40 percent, we’re not going to bring it back until there’s a fair rate. There’s no debate about it.”

Cook may be right that there’s “no debate” about whether it’s sensible for a company to keep money overseas to guard against bad tax policy.

But there is a debate about whether politicians will make the law worse in a grab for more revenue.

Senator Ron Wyden, for instance, doesn’t understand the issue. He wrote an editorial asserting that Apple is engaging in a “rip-off.”

…the heart of this mess is the big dog of tax rip-offs – tax deferral. This is the rule that encourages American multinational corporations to keep their profits overseas instead of investing them here at home, and it does so by granting them $80 billion a year in tax breaks. This policy…defies common sense. …some of the most profitable companies in the world can put off paying taxes indefinitely while hardworking Americans must pay their taxes every year. …that system creates a perverse incentive to keep corporate profits overseas instead of investing here at home.

I agree with him that the current system creates a perverse incentive to keep money abroad.

But you don’t solve that problem by imposing unconstrained worldwide taxation, which would create a perverse incentive structure that discourages American-domiciled firms from competing for market share in other nations.

Amazingly, Senator Wyden actually claims that making the system more punitive would help make America a better place to do business.

…ending deferral is a necessary step in making sure…the U.S. maintains its position as the best place to do business.

Wow, this rivals some of the crazy things that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said.

Though I guess we need to give Wyden credit for honesty. He admits that what he really wants is for Washington to have more money to spend.

Ending deferral will also generate money from existing deferred taxes to pay for rebuilding our country’s crumbling infrastructure. …This is a priority that almost all tax reform proposals have called for.

By the way, can you guess which presidential candidate agrees with Senator Wyden and wants to impose full and immediate worldwide taxation?

If you answered Hillary Clinton, you’re right. But if you answered Donald Trump, that also would be a correct answer.

This is a grim example of why I refer to them as the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of statism.

Though to be fair, Trump’s plan at least contains a big reduction in the corporate tax rate, which would substantially reduce the negative impact of a worldwide tax system.

The Wall Street Journal opines on the issue and is especially unimpressed by Hillary Clinton’s irresponsible approach on the issue.

Mrs. Clinton is targeting so-called inversions, where U.S.-based companies move their headquarters by buying an overseas competitor, as well as foreign takeovers of U.S. firms for tax considerations. These migrations are the result of a U.S. corporate-tax code that supplies incentives to migrate… The Democrat would impose what she calls an “exit tax” on businesses that relocate outside the U.S., which is the sort of thing banana republics impose when their economies sour. …Mrs. Clinton wants to build a tax wall to stop Americans from escaping. “If they want to go,” she threatened in Michigan, “they’re going to have to pay to go.”

Ugh, making companies “pay to go” is an unseemly sentiment. Sort of what you might expect from a place like Venezuela where politicians treat private firms as a source of loot for their cronies.

The WSJ correctly points out that the problem is America’s anti-competitive worldwide tax regime, combined with a punitive corporate tax rate.

…the U.S. taxes residents—businesses and individuals—on their world-wide income, not merely the income that they earned in the U.S. …the U.S. taxes companies headquartered in the U.S. far more than companies based in other countries. Thirty-one of the 34 OECD countries have cut corporate taxes since 2000, leaving the U.S. with the highest rate in the industrialized world. The U.S. system of world-wide taxation means that a company that moves from Dublin, Ohio, to Dublin, Ireland, will pay a rate that is less than a third of America’s. A dollar of profit earned on the Emerald Isle by an Irish-based company becomes 87.5 cents after taxes, which it can then invest in Ireland or the U.S. or somewhere else. But if the company stays in Ohio and makes the same buck in Ireland, the after-tax return drops to 65 cents or less if the money is invested in America.

In other words, the problem is obvious and the solution is obvious.

But there are too many Barack Obamas and Elizabeth Warrens in Washington, so it’s more likely that policy will move in the wrong direction.

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Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. There are lots of things you should know – most bad, though some good – about international bureaucracies.

That being said, regular readers know that I get very frustrated with the statist policy agendas of both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I especially object to the way these international bureaucracies are cheerleaders for bigger government and higher tax burdens. Even though they ostensibly exist to promote greater levels of prosperity!

I’ve written on these issues, ad nauseam, but perhaps dry analysis is only part of what’s needed to get the message across. Maybe some clever image can explain the issue to a broader audience (something I’ve done before with cartoons and images about the rise and fall of the welfare state, the misguided fixation on income distribution, etc).

It took awhile, but I eventually came up with (what I hope is) a clever idea. And when a former Cato intern with artistic skill, Jonathan Babington-Heina, agreed to do me a favor and take the concept in my head and translate it to paper, here are the results.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

Excessive government is the main problem plaguing the global economy. But the international bureaucracies, for all intents and purposes, represent governments. The bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD need to please politicians in order to continue enjoying their lavish budgets and exceedingly generous tax-free salaries.

So when there is some sort of problem in the global economy, they are reluctant to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens (even if the economists working for these organizations sometimes produce very good research on fiscal issues).

Instead, when it’s time to make recommendations, they push an agenda that is good for the political elite but bad for the private sector. Which is exactly what I’m trying to demonstrate in the cartoon,

But let’s not merely rely on a cartoon to make this point.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett discuss the intersection of economic policy and international bureaucracies. They start by explaining that these organizations would promote jurisdictional competition if they were motivated by a desire to boost growth.

…economic theory has a lot to say about how they should function. …they haven’t achieved all of their promise, primarily because those bodies have yet to fully understand the role they need to play in the interconnected world. The key insight harkens back to a dusty economics seminar room in the early 1950s, when University of Michigan graduate student Charles Tiebout…said that governments could be driven to efficient behavior if people can move. …This observation, which Tiebout developed fully in a landmark paper published in 1956, led to an explosion of work by economists, much of it focusing on…many bits of evidence that confirm the important beneficial effects that can emerge when governments compete. …A flatter world should make the competition between national governments increasingly like the competition between smaller communities. Such competition can provide the world’s citizens with an insurance policy against the out-of-control growth of massive and inefficient bureaucracies.

Using the European Union as an example, Hubbard and Hassett point out the grim results when bureaucracies focus on policies designed to boost the power of governments rather than the vitality of the market.

…as Brexit indicates, the EU has not successfully focused solely on the potentially positive role it could play. Indeed, as often as not, one can view the actions of the EU government as being an attempt to form a cartel to harmonize policies across member states, and standing in the way of, rather than advancing, competition. …an EU that acts as a competition-stifling cartel will grow increasingly unpopular, and more countries will leave it.

They close with a very useful suggestion.

If the EU instead focuses on maximizing mobility and enhancing the competition between states, allowing the countries to compete on regulation, taxation, and in other policy areas, then the union will become a populist’s dream and the best economic friend of its citizens.

Unfortunately, I fully expect this sage advice to fall upon deaf ears. The crowd in Brussels knows that their comfortable existence is dependent on pleasing politicians from national governments.

And the same is true for the bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD.

The only practical solution is to have national governments cut off funding so the bureaucracies disappear.

But, to cite just one example, why would Obama allow that when these bureaucracies go through a lot of effort to promote his statist agenda?

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I’m in Shenyang, China, as part of the faculty for Northeastern University’s International Economics and Management program.

My primary role is to talk about the economics of fiscal policy, explaining the impact of both taxes and spending.

But regular readers already know my views on those issues, so let’s look instead at the vaunted Chinese Miracle.

And I don’t use “vaunted” in a sarcastic sense. Ever since China began to liberalize its economy in the late 1970s, economic growth has been very impressive. I don’t necessarily believe the statistics coming from the Chinese government, but it’s unquestionably true that there’s been spectacular progress.

The great mystery, though, is whether China will continue to enjoy rapid growth. In other words, will it actually converge with the United States (right now per-capita economic output in America is more than five times higher than it is in China)? Or will China, like many other developing/transition economies, hit a ceiling and then begin to stagnate.

I don’t pretend to know the future, but I can say with great confidence that the answer depends on the actions of the Chinese government.

The good news is that economic freedom jumped dramatically starting in 1980 according to Economic Freedom of the World. Thanks to good reforms, China’s score rose by more than 50 percent, climbing from 4.0 in 1980 to more than 6.0 in just a bit over two decades.

That’s a huge improvement, and it largely explains why prosperity has expanded and there’s been a record reduction in the grinding poverty and material deprivation that characterized the country.

But the bad news is that there hasn’t been much reform in the past 15 years. China’s economic freedom score has oscillated between 6.0 and 6.4 during that period.

Indeed, there have been financial bailouts and Keynesian-style “stimulus” schemes, so it’s possible that China is now going in the wrong direction.

Before digging into the details, let’s consider the economics of growth. I’ve written before that labor and capital are the two factors of production and that economic growth is a function of more labor, more capital, or learning to use existing labor and/or capital more productively.

One way to visualize this is with a production possibility curve. This is a tool in economics that often is used to illustrate tradeoffs and opportunity costs. If Robinson Crusoe is on a deserted island, what the best way for him to allocate his time to maximize the amount of fish he can catch and the number of coconuts he can collect? Or, for an entire society, what’s the “guns-vs-butter” tradeoff?

Here’s a chart I found online that illustrates the role of capital and labor and producing output. It’s a three-dimensional chart, which is helpful since it not only shows that there’s no output in the absence of capital and labor, but it also shows that an economy with just labor or just capital also won’t have much if any output. You produce a lot, by contrast, with labor and capital are mixed together.

But that’s just the beginning.

The above chart shows the amount of output that theoretically can be produced with given amounts of labor and capital. But what if there’s bad policy in a nation? Consider the difference, for example, between China’s plateaued economic freedom score and decent economic performance compared to Hong Kong’s great economic freedom score and great economic performance.

With that in mind, contemplate this two-dimensional image. With bad policy, either the economy only produces A when it can produce B (i.e., by using existing labor and capital more productively) or it produces B when it can produce C (i.e., by expanding the amount of labor and capital).

I suspect that China’s problem is mostly that bad policy interferes with the efficient allocation of labor and capital. In other words, there’s already a lot of labor and capital being deployed, but a significant amount is misallocated because of cronyism and other forms of intervention.

Now let’s move from theory to empirical details.

Here’s a close look at China’s reforms from Professor Li Yang, Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Over the past 35 years, China has achieved extraordinary economic performance thanks to the market-oriented reforms and opening-up….The GDP per capita also reached to $6075 in 2012, up from $205 in 1980… China’s economy experiences impressive changes in favor of marketization. In fact, as far back as 1996, 81% of the production materials, and 93% of retail sales, had already been traded according to the market pricing mechanism.

And here’s a chart showing the gradual expansion of market forces in China, presumably based on whether prices are determined by markets or by central planning.

We also have two charts showing the decline in genuine socialism (i.e., government ownership of the means of production).

The first chart shows that state-owned companies are becoming an ever-smaller share of the economy.

Even more impressive, there’s been a huge decline in the share of the population employed by state-owned firms.

This is good news, and it helps to explain why China is much richer today than it was 30 years ago.

But the great unknown is whether China will experience similar strong growth for the next 30 years.

Here’s more of Professor Yang’s optimistic analysis.

Another indispensable factor explaining China’s growth miracle is constant opening-up, which is equally guided by the principle of gradualism. Regarding the space structure, the markets successively opened up from the special economic zones, economic and technological development zones, coastal economic development zones, riparian regions, inland regions, and finally the whole China; regarding the industrial structure, from the advantaged manufacturing industry, to the less advantaged agriculture and service industries. In 2001, China’s entry into the WTO can be regarded as a milestone: China’s opening up transformed from selective policy measures to widespread and deep institutional arrangements.

The liberalization of trade is particularly impressive, as shown by the following chart from the study.

Makes me wonder what Donald Trump would adjust his protectionist China-bashing if he saw (and understood) this chart.

Anyhow, here are some passages from Professor Yang’s conclusion.

…market-oriented reforms constitute the most crucial factor to support China’s growth in the future. The key here is to properly deal with the relationship between government and markets. The latter will be expected to play the fundamental role in the allocation of economic resources. …China should make more effort to improve the efficiency of investment. …the government needs to reduce its intervention in the micro-level economic activities, promote deregulation and administrative decentralization, break up monopolies, and improve the efficiency of functioning.

I agree, particularly the part about boosting the efficiency of investment.

And that can only happen if China ends cronyism by letting capital be allocated by market forces rather than political connections.

Let’s close with two items.

First, one of the other faculty with me at the University in Shenyang is Ken Schoolland. In his presentation, he noted that there’s some real federalism in China. Provinces have considerable flexibility to engage in reform.

And it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the rapid growth in China has been concentrated in the areas that have moved the fastest and farthest in the direction of free markets.

Second, some experienced observers are a bit pessimistic about future Chinese economic developments. Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute explains what needs to happen to boost future prosperity.

…the economy is in the process of stagnating. The only solution is a return to market-driven, politically difficult reform. Such reform must be focused primarily on rolling back the state sector. …Expanded individual or household land ownership in rural areas would be…helpful. …More individual land rights shrink the rural state. The critical step in revitalizing the economy is to shrink the urban state, and by a considerable amount. Such changes will of course be phased in over time but the sooner they start, the sooner economic performance improves. Shrinking the urban state sector would (i) finally address excess capacity; (ii) enable capital to be much more efficiently allocated; (iii) thereby slow or halt unproductive debt accumulation; and (iv)encourage innovation by enabling more competition. …In terms of capital allocation, formal interest rate liberalization was said to be a vital step. But it cannot be while the state controls most financial assets – the incentives for collusion among sister state financials are overwhelming.

Here’s Derek’s bottom line.

Want to know when China is going to thrive again – just check if the state sector is actually shrinking.


What he’s basically describing are the policies that would dramatically improve China’s score from Economic Freedom of the World. And if China can ever climb as high as Hong Kong, then the sky’s the limit for growth and prosperity.

P.S. There are some signs that China’s leadership recognizes that a Reagan-style agenda is needed.

P.P.S. On the other hand, if China’s government takes the IMF’s advice, then prepare for economic decline and stagnation.

P.P.P.S. The most amusing economic news in recent years was when a senior Chinese official basically explained that the welfare state in Europe makes people lazy.

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The United States is laboring through the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression.

Median household income is stagnant and labor-force participation is dismal.

Sounds awful, right?

Compared to the strong growth of the pro-market Reagan years and pro-market Clinton years, it is awful.

But maybe we should count our blessings

Here’s a chart from a presentation. by economists from the European Central Bank, and it shows how much the United States has grown since 1999 compared to Japan and euro nations.

We’ve enjoyed nearly twice as much growth as Europe and almost three times as much growth as Japan. Which is remarkable since those countries aren’t as rich as the United States and they should grow faster according to convergence theory.

So while it’s true that Obamanomics hasn’t been good for the United States, it’s apparently not as bad as Abenomics in Japan and Hollandenomics (and Renzinomics and Tsiprasnomics) in Europe.

Allan Meltzer explains why Europe is lagging in an article for the Hoover Institution.

Europe has become the model for how democratic capitalism can give way to the welfare state. Following a surge of market-driven growth after World War II, there was a rise across the continent in income redistribution and regulations intended to protect workers and consumers, and to achieve “fairness.” From the 1960s onward, high tax rates and heavy regulations slowed economic growth. And many welfare state programs became roadblocks to economic progress by resisting reforms and prolonging the current European recession. …France and Italy are not as far along to disaster as Greece, but their welfare systems are also difficult to reduce to regain competitiveness. …Monetary policy cannot overcome real, structural problems. Spain and Ireland showed that EU members can restore growth most effectively by making…painful real changes… Sluggish growth will continue until EU officials adopt policies that encourage private investment.

It’s depressing to think that some American politicians want to copy European failure.

Some of the candidates in the 2016 presidential race offer more welfare state benefits as a remedy for current voter malaise. The promise is that the way to make everyone better off is by taxing high incomes and distributing more to others. That’s the route that many in Europe took. Instead of the promised happy outcome, much of Europe got slow growth and high unemployment and an ever greater need to restore competitiveness by reducing the expanded welfare state. …Prime Minister Thatcher often said, “The welfare state will end when they run out of YOUR money.” If she was right, the end for Europe is here. And the lesson for the United States is to adopt less costly policies before debt markets force the change. …the lesson for the United States is that we will not escape the problems of the welfare state.

Even the left-wing bureaucrats at the OECD sort of admit Europe is falling behind.

I’ve previously shared data from the OECD showing much higher living standards in the US than in Europe, and here are some excerpts from a recent report on global migration patterns for high-skilled workers.

…migrants to the EU are younger and less well educated than those in other OECD destinations. Of the total pool of highly-educated third-country migrants residing in EU and OECD countries, the EU hosts less than one-third (31%), while more than half (57%) are in North America. …most importantly, many labour migrants are not coming to the EU under programmes for skilled workers. …EU Member States covered by EU legal migration policies received annually less than 80 thousand highly qualified third country labour migrants. By comparison, Canada and Australia have annual admissions under their selective economic migration programmes for highly-qualified workers of 60 thousand each.

In the section on recommendations, you won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD failed to suggest pro-market reforms.

There’s boilerplate language about streamlining the process for high-skill immigrants, but nothing about the stifling tax burdens and expensive welfare states that cause European economies to be so stagnant and unappealing.

One very visible manifestation of inferior living standards in Europe is that people generally have very cramped housing conditions compared to the United States (even Americans in poverty have more living space than the average European).

And to make matters worse, air conditioning is the exception not the rule.

Amusingly, Europeans pretend to feel superior about their summertime misery, as reported by the Washington Post.

Whereas many Americans would probably never consider living or working in buildings without air conditioning, many Germans think that life without climate control is far superior. …many Europeans visiting the U.S. frequently complain about the “freezing cold” temperatures inside buses or hotels. …Europe thinks America’s love of air-conditioning is actually quite daft. …according to the Environmental Protection Agency, …demand for air-conditioning has only  increased over the past decades. …the United States consumes more energy for air conditioning than any other country. …Europeans are generally more used to warmer room temperatures because most of them grew up without any air-conditioning.

As one might expect, the issue is being used by climate alarmists.

Another factor that may explain Europe’s sniffy reaction toward American cooling is the continent’s climate change awareness. According to a 2014 survey, a majority of Europeans would welcome more action to stop global warming. Two thirds of all E.U. citizens said that economies should be transformed in an environmentally-friendly manner. Cooling uses much more energy than heating, which is why many Europeans prefer sweating for a few days… America’s air-conditioning addiction may also have another negative side effect: It will make it harder for the U.S. to ask other countries to continue to abstain from using it to save energy. …”If everyone were to adopt the U.S.’s air-conditioning lifestyle, energy use could rise tenfold by 2050,” Cox added, referring to the 87-percent ratio of households with air-conditioning in the United States.

I’m much more tolerant of heat than the average American, so I probably could survive in a world without air conditioning.

But I hope that day never arrives and I continue to enjoy the full benefits of living in a first-world nation.

Let’s close with a fascinating map showing populations changes in Europe from 2001-2011. It’s in German, but all you need to know is that dark red means a 2-percent-plus increase in population while dark blue means a decline of at least 2 percent.

France and Ireland have population growth, as well as (to a lesser extent) Northern Italy and Poland.

But take a look at Portugal, Northwestern Spain, Eastern Germany, and the non-Polish portions of Eastern Europe. You’ll understand why I fret about demographic crisis in both Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

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What’s the best measure of the tax burden on the U.S. economy?

Is it the amount of money that we’re forced to surrender to the knaves in Washington (i.e., the difference between our pre-tax income and post-tax consumption)?

Or is it the loss of economic output caused by high tax rates, distorting preferences, and pervasive double taxation (i.e., policies that reduce our pre-tax income)?

The answer is both.

But even that’s not sufficient. There’s another very big part of the tax burden, which is the complexity caused by a 75,000-page tax code that imposes very high compliance costs on taxpayers. In other words, the tax (as measured by time, resources, and energy) we pay for the ostensible privilege of paying taxes.

And this compliance tax is enormous according to new research from the Tax Foundation. The report starts with some very sobering numbers.

…In 1955, the Internal Revenue Code stood at 409,000 words. Since then, it has grown to a total of 2.4 million words: almost six times as long as it was in 1955 and almost twice as long as in 1985. However, the tax statutes passed by Congress are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tax complexity. There are roughly 7.7 million words of tax regulations, promulgated by the IRS over the last century, which clarify how the U.S. tax statutes work in practice. On top of that, there are almost 60,000 pages of tax-related case law, which are indispensable for accountants and tax lawyers trying to figure out how much their clients actually owe.

It then measures the burden of this convoluted system for taxpayers.

According to the latest estimates from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Americans will spend more than 8.9 billion hours complying with IRS tax filing requirements in 2016. This is equal to nearly 4.3 million full-time workers doing nothing but tax return paperwork. …in dollar terms, the 8.9 billion hours needed to comply with the tax code computes to $409 billion each year in lost productivity, or greater than the gross product of 36 states… The cost of complying with U.S. business income taxes accounts for 36 percent of the total cost of the entire tax code, at $147 billion. Complying with the individual income tax costs another $99 billion annually.

The report provides data for 50 provisions of the tax code. In the interest of brevity, here are the 10-most expensive features of the internal revenue code.

The overall $147 billion compliance cost for businesses is enormous, particularly when you consider that corporate tax revenue for Uncle Sam this year is estimated to be $329 billion. So companies have a double-whammy of enduring the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate, and they have to spend lots of money for the pleasure of that punitive system.

Another part that grabbed my attention is “Form 4562” dealing with depreciation. If you care about good policy and stronger growth, businesses shouldn’t even have to depreciate. Instead, we should have a policy of “expensing,” which is simply the common-sense approach of recognizing costs in the year they occur. So firms are paying a $23 billion-plus tax for the privilege of a policy that already punishes them for investing. Amazing.

And don’t forget the death tax, which also makes the top-10 list. The Tax Foundation points out that the compliance cost basically doubles the burden of that horrible and unfair levy.

The estate and gift tax, which will only collect approximately $20 billion in federal revenues this year, has a compliance cost of $19.6 billion.

What a mess.

So what’s the answer?

Simply stated, we should rip up the entire internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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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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