Archive for the ‘Competitiveness’ Category

Here we go again.

The politicians in Washington are whining and complaining that “evil” and “greedy” corporations are bring traitors by engaging in corporate inversions so they can leave America.

The issue is very simple. The United States has a very unfriendly and anti-competitive tax system. So it’s very much in the interest of multinational companies to figure out some way of switching their legal domicile to a jurisdiction with better tax law. There are two things to understand.

First, the United States has the world’s highest corporate tax rate, which undermines job creation and competitiveness in America, regardless of whether there are inversions.

Second, the United States has the most punitive “worldwide” tax system, meaning the IRS gets to tax American-domiciled companies on income that is earned (and already subject to tax) in other nations.

Unfortunately, the White House has no desire to address these problems.

This means American companies that compete in global markets are in an untenable position. If they’re passive, they’ll lose market share and be less able to compete.

And this is why so many of them have decided to re-domicile, notwithstanding childish hostility from Washington.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting, for instance, that the long-rumored inversion of Pfizer is moving forward.

Pfizer Inc. and Allergan PLC agreed on a historic merger deal worth more than $150 billion that would create the world’s biggest drug maker and move one of the top names in corporate America to a foreign country. …The takeover would be the largest so-called inversion ever. Such deals enable a U.S. company to move abroad and take advantage of a lower corporate tax rate elsewhere… In hooking up with Allergan, Pfizer would lower its tax rate below 20%, analysts estimate. Allergan, itself the product of a tax-lowering inversion deal, has a roughly 15% tax rate.

While there presumably will be some business synergies that will be achieved, tax policy played a big role. Here are some passages from a WSJ story late last month.

Pfizer Inc. Chief Executive Ian Read said Thursday he won’t let potential political fallout deter him from pursuing a tax-reducing takeover that could move the company’s legal address outside the U.S… Mr. Read…said he had a duty to increase or defend the value of his company, which he said is disadvantaged by the U.S. tax system.

And the report accurately noted that the United States has a corporate tax system that is needlessly and destructively punitive.

The U.S. has the highest corporate tax rate—35% — in the industrialized world, and companies owe taxes on all the income they earn around the world, though they can defer U.S. taxes on foreign income until they bring the money home. In other countries, companies face lower tax rates and few if any residual taxes on moving profits across borders.

And when I said America’s tax system was “needlessly and destructively punitive,” that wasn’t just empty rhetoric.

The Tax Foundation has an International Tax Competitiveness Index, which ranks the tax systems of industrialized nations. As you can see, America does get a good grade.

The United States places 32nd out of the 34 OECD countries on the ITCI. There are three main drivers behind the U.S.’s low score. First, it has the highest corporate income tax rate in the OECD at 39 percent (combined marginal federal and state rates). Second, it is one of the few countries in the OECD that does not have a territorial tax system, which would exempt foreign profits earned by domestic corporations from domestic taxation. Finally, the United States loses points for having a relatively high, progressive individual income tax (combined top rate of 48.6 percent) that taxes both dividends and capital gains, albeit at a reduced rate.

Here’s the table showing overall scores and ranking for major categories.

You’ll have to scroll to the bottom portion to find the United States. And I’ve circled (in red) America’s ranking for corporate taxation and international tax rules. So perhaps it’s now easy to understand why Pfizer will be domiciled in Ireland.

By the way, while I’m a huge admirer of the Tax Foundation, I don’t fully agree with this ranking because there’s no component score for aggregate tax burden.

I don’t say that because it would boost America’s score (though that would help bump up the United States), but rather because I think it’s important to have some measure showing the degree to which resources are being diverted from the economy’s productive sector to government.

But I’m digressing. Let’s now return to the main issue of Pfizer and corporate inversions.

Our friends on the left have a blame-the-victim approach to this issue. Here’s what the Wall Street Journal wrote in September, before the Pfizer-Allergan merger.

Remember last year when the Obama Treasury bypassed federal rule-making procedures to stop U.S. companies from moving overseas? It didn’t work. …Watching U.S. firms skedaddle, President Obama might have thought that perhaps the U.S. should stop taxing earnings generated outside its borders, since almost no one else on the planet does. Or he might have pondered whether the industrialized world’s highest corporate income tax rate is good for business. Being Barack Obama, the President naturally sought to bar companies from leaving. And his Treasury, being part of the Obama Administration, naturally skipped the normal process of proposing new rules and allowing the public to comment on them.

But even this lawless administration hasn’t been able to block inversions by regulatory edict.

…in the year since the Treasury Department “tightened its rules to reduce the tax benefits of such deals, six U.S. companies have struck inversions, compared with the nine that did so the year before.” Meanwhile, foreign takeovers of U.S. firms, which have the same effect of preventing the IRS from capturing world-wide earnings, are booming. These acquisitions exceed $379 billion so far this year, …far above any recent year before Treasury acted against inversions. So the policy won’t generate the revenue that Mr. Obama wants to collect, but it is succeeding in moving control of U.S. businesses offshore.

This should be an argument for a different approach, but Obama is too ideological to compromise on this issue.

And his leftist allies also don’t seem open to reason. Here’s some of what Jared Bernstein wrote a couple of days ago for the Washington Post.

There are three parts of his column that cry out for attention. First, he gives away his real motive by arguing that Washington should have more money.

…an eroding tax base is a bad thing. …we will need more, not less, revenue in the future.

In the context of inversions, he’s saying that it’s better for politicians to seize business earnings rather than to leave the funds in the private sector.

He then makes two assertions that simply are either untrue or misleading.

For instance, he puts forth an Elizabeth Warren-type argument that firms that engage in inversions are dodging their obligation to “contribute” to the system that allows them to earn money.

…the main thing the inverting company changes here is its tax mailbox and thus where it books its profits, not its actual location. So it’s still taking advantage of our infrastructure, our markets, and our educated workforce — it’s just significantly cutting what it contributes to them.

Utter nonsense. Every inverted company (and every foreign company of any kind) pays tax to the IRS on income earned in the United States.

All that happens with an inversion is that a company no longer pays tax to the IRS on income that is earned in other nations (and already subject to tax by governments in those nations!).

But that’s income that the United States shouldn’t be taxing in the first place.

Jared than argues that America’s corporate tax rate isn’t very high if you look at average tax rates.

…isn’t the problem that when it comes to corporate taxes, we’re the high-tax country? Not really. Our statutory corporate tax rate (35 percent) may be higher than that in many other countries, but because of all these tax avoidance schemes, the effective corporate rate is closer to 20 percent.

Once again, he’s off base. What matters most from an economic perspective is the marginal tax rate. Because that 35 percent marginal rate is what impacts incentives to earn more income, create more jobs, and expand investments.

And that marginal tax rate is what’s important for purposes of a company competing with a foreign competitor.

Here’s a briefing I gave to Capitol Hill staffers last year. The issues haven’t changed, so it’s still very appropriate for today’s debate.

Now perhaps you’ll understand why I’m a big fan of this poster.

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Federalism is great for many reasons. When you have dozens of states with the freedom to choose different policies, you get lots of innovation and diversity, which helps identify policies that work.

You also can minimize the cost of mistakes. When a policy error occurs in one state (for example, government-run healthcare in Vermont), it quickly becomes obvious and the damage can be contained and maybe even reversed. But when a mistake is made nationally (such as Obamacare), it’s not as easy to pinpoint why the economy is weakening and fixing the error thus becomes more difficult.

And it should go without saying that federalism is desirable because it facilitates and enables competition among jurisdictions. And that limits the power of governments to impose bad policy.

These are some of the reasons why I’m a huge fan of the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index. It’s a rigorous publication that calculates the good and bad features of every state’s tax system. It then add together all that data to generate a very helpful ranking of the nation’s best and worst state tax systems.

And since that’s what people care most about, let’s cut to the chase and look at the states at the top and the bottom of the Index.

There are a couple of things which should be obvious from these two lists.

First, it’s a very good idea to be part of the no-income-tax club. It’s no coincidence that 7 out of the top 10 states don’t have that pernicious levy.

Second, perhaps the biggest lesson from the states in the bottom 10 is that it’s basically impossible for a state with a big government to have a good tax system.

Third (and here’s where I’m going to be a contrarian), I’m not sure that Wyoming and Alaska really deserve their high rankings. Both states use energy severance taxes to finance relatively large public sectors. And while it’s true that energy severance taxes don’t do as much damage to a state’s competitiveness as other revenue sources, I nonetheless think there should be an asterisk next to those two states.

So I actually put South Dakota in first place (though I realize I’m implicitly incorporating government spending into the equation while the Tax Foundation is only measuring the tax environment for business).

Now that we’ve hit the main highlights, here’s some explanatory information from the Index.

…the Index is designed to show how well states structure their tax systems, and provides a roadmap for improvement. …The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top ten states. …This does not mean, however, that a state cannot rank in the top ten while still levying all the major taxes. Indiana and Utah, for example, levy all of the major tax types, but do so with low rates on broad bases. The states in the bottom 10 tend to have a number of afflictions in common: complex, non-neutral taxes with comparatively high rates.

And here’s some details about the Index’s methodology.

The Index…comparing the states on over 100 different variables in the five major areas of taxation (corporate taxes, individual income taxes, sales taxes, unemployment insurance taxes, and property taxes)… Using the economic literature as our guide, we designed these five components to score each state’s business tax climate…The five components are not weighted equally… This improves the explanatory power of the State Business Tax Climate Index as a whole. …this edition is the 2016 Index and represents the tax climate of each state as of July 1, 2015, the first day of fiscal year 2016 for most states.

Here’s a map showing the ranking of every state.

Top-10 states are in blue and bottom-10 states are in orange. At the risk of repeating myself, notice how zero-income tax states rank highly.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page combed through the report for highlights. The biggest success story in recent years is North Carolina, which joined the flat tax club.

…North Carolina, which in 2013 slashed its top 7.75% income tax to a flat 5.75% and its corporate rate to 5% from 6.9%. The former 44th is now ranked 15th.

Given Martin O’Malley’s horrible record in Maryland, I’m surprised that he hasn’t picked up more support from crazy lefties in the Democratic Party.

As Governor of Maryland from 2007 to 2015, Democrat Martin O’Malley increased some 40 taxes including the corporate rate to 8.25% from 7% and the sales tax to 6% from 5%.

And here’s some good news from an unexpected place.

The trophy for most-improved this year goes to Illinois, which jumped to 23rd from 31st… The Tax Foundation notes that the leap occurred “due to the sunset of corporate and individual income tax increases”… First-year Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has let the income-tax rate lapse to 3.75% from 5% and the corporate rate to 7.75% from 9.5%, though Democrats are trying to push them back up.

Given how the tax hike backfired, let’s hope the Governor holds firm in this fight.

Now let’s return to some of the analysis in the Tax Foundation’s Index. Here’s some of the academic evidence on the importance of low tax burdens.

Helms concluded that a state’s ability to attract, retain, and encourage business activity is significantly affected by its pattern of taxation. Furthermore, tax increases significantly retard economic growth when the revenue is used to fund transfer payments. …Bartik (1989) provides strong evidence that taxes have a negative impact on business startups. He finds specifically that property taxes, because they are paid regardless of profit, have the strongest negative effect on business. Bartik’s econometric model also predicts tax elasticities of –0.1 to –0.5 that imply a 10 percent cut in tax rates will increase business activity by 1 to 5 percent. …Agostini and Tulayasathien (2001)…determined that for “foreign investors, the corporate tax rate is the most relevant tax in their investment decision.” …Mark, McGuire, and Papke (2000) found that taxes are a statistically significant factor in private-sector job growth. Specifically, they found that personal property taxes and sales taxes have economically large negative effects on the annual growth of private employment. …the consensus among recent literature is that state and local taxes negatively affect employment levels. Harden and Hoyt conclude that the corporate income tax has the most significant negative impact on the rate of growth in employment. Gupta and Hofmann (2003)…model covered 14 years of data and determined that firms tend to locate property in states where they are subject to lower income tax burdens.

The message is that all the major revenue sources – income, sales, and property – can have negative effects.

Which explains, of course, why it’s important to control state government spending.

And one final point to make is that we should do everything possible to shrink the size of the central government in Washington and transfer activities to the private sector or states. This isn’t because states don’t make mistakes, but rather because competition between states will produce far better results than a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington.

P.S. A study from German economists finds that decentralization limits economically harmful redistribution outlays.

P.P.S. And a study from the IMF reveals that decentralized government is more competent and efficient.

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Whatever happened to Elizabeth Warren?

A couple of years ago, she was the pin-up girl for the crazy left thanks to fatuous statements about “you didn’t build that.”

But now she’s faded into the background and other politicians are getting more attention for their absurd statements (yes, I’m thinking of Hillary and Bernie).

So what accounts for Warren’s decline? Is that because even statists are embarrassed by her use of fake claims of Indian ancestry to climb the career ladder? Is it because the self-styled fighter against corporate fat cats revealed herself to be a hypocritical fraud after choosing to support the corrupt dispenser of subsidies that is otherwise known as the Export-Import Bank?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I suspect Senator Warren wants to get back in the spotlight. After all, that’s the only logical explanation for her recent upside-down comments about corporate taxation.

And “upside-down” doesn’t even begin to capture the absurdity of what she said, which revealed she has no clue that there’s not a linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue. Here are some excerpts from a remarkable report in The Hill.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) says the big issue with the U.S. corporate tax code is not that taxes are too high — it’s that the revenue generated from the taxes is too low. …“Only one problem with the over-taxation story: It’s not true,” Warren said at the National Press Club on Wednesday. …Warren laid out…principles for corporate tax reform: Permanently increase the share of long-term revenues paid by large corporations.


When I read this story, something seemed very familiar.

And then I realized that I read a very similar statement a few years ago in the Washington Post. Writing about fiscal woes in Detroit, a reporter apparently thought it was a mystery that “tax collections are down 20 percent and income tax collections are down by more than a third…despite some of the highest tax rates in the state.”

What Senator Warren and some journalists fail to understand is that there are cases when tax revenues are very low because tax rates are high.

That’s clearly the case with the corporate tax. The United States has the second-highest corporate tax rate in the entire world.

And to add icing on this distasteful cake, we also have arguably the world’s worst worldwide tax system, combined with one of the world’s worst corporate tax structures.

Which makes this statement from Senator Warren particularly laughable.

“Our tax code should protect jobs and investments at home, period,” she said.

I’m almost speechless. Our tax treatment of business already is punitive and Warren wants to make it even worse (who does she think she is, an OECD bureaucrat?), yet she has the gall to pontificate about promoting jobs and investment in the United States?!?

Sort of like murdering your parents and then asking a judge for mercy because you’re an orphan.

In any event, here’s a video that Senator Warren should watch if she actually wants to understand corporate taxation (though I won’t hold my breath).

P.S. Switching to a completely different topic, I’m the first to admit that economists are easy to mock, especially the ones who think they know enough to fine tune the economy.

But it turns out that we’re not total dorks. If a report from the New York Times is accurate (a risky assumption, to be sure), we actually have pretty good social skills.

But I don’t think this means I suddenly have the ability to go into a bar and successfully chat up some ladies (which would be an untenably risky proposition, anyhow, because the PotL has a fiery temper).

What this actually means is that we economists supposedly have decent verbal and communications skills.

P.P.S. Let’s return to the original topic. I don’t claim to be overly clever or creative when it comes to economic humor, but I think I modified this famous sarcastic statement in a very accurate fashion.

Not as good as my Uncle Fester/sequestration cartoon, but it does capture Sen. Warren’s mindset.

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Since I’m a big fan of the Laffer Curve, I’m always interested in real-world examples showing good results when governments reduce marginal tax rates on productive activity.

Heck, I’m equally interested in real-world results when governments do the wrong thing and increase tax burdens on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship (and, sadly, these examples are more common).

My goal, to be sure, isn’t to maximize revenue for politicians. Instead, I prefer the growth-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve.

In any event, my modest hope is that politicians will learn that higher tax rates lead to less taxable income. Whether taxable income falls by a lot or a little obviously depends on the specific circumstance. But in either case, I want policy makers to understand that there are negative economic effects.

Writing for Forbes, Jeremy Scott of Tax Notes analyzes the supply-side policies of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu…argued that the Laffer curve worked, and that his 2003 tax cuts had transformed Israel into a market economy and an engine of growth. …He pushed through controversial reforms… The top individual tax rate was cut from 64 percent to 44 percent, while corporate taxes were slashed from 36 percent to 18 percent. …Netanyahu credits these reforms for making Israel’s high-tech boom of the last few years possible. …tax receipts did rise after Netanyahu’s tax cuts. In fact, they were sharply higher in 2007 than in 2003, before falling for several years because of the global recession. …His tax cuts did pay for themselves. And he has transformed Israel into more of a market economy…In fact, the prime minister recently announced plans for more cuts to taxes, this time to the VAT and corporate levies.

Pretty impressive.

Though I have to say that rising revenues doesn’t necessarily mean that the tax cuts were completely self-financing. To answer that question, you have to know what would have happened in the absence of the tax cut. And since that information never will be available, all we can do is speculate.

That being said, I have no doubt there was a strong Laffer Curve response in Israel. Simply stated, dropping the top tax rate on personal income by 20 percentage points creates a much more conducive environment for investment and entrepreneurship.

And cutting the corporate tax rate in half is also a sure-fire recipe for improved investment and job creation.

I’m also impressed that there’s been some progress on the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Netanyahu explained that the public sector had become a fat man resting on a thin man’s back. If Israel were to be successful, it would have to reverse the roles. The private sector would need to become the fat man, something that would be possible only with tax cuts and a trimming of public spending. …Government spending was capped for three years.

The article doesn’t specify the years during which spending was capped, but the IMF data shows a de facto spending freeze between 2002 and 2005. And the same data, along with OECD data, shows that the burden of government spending has dropped by about 10 percentage points of GDP since that period of spending restraint early last decade.

Here’s the big picture from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see from the data on Israel, the nation moved dramatically in the right direction after 1980. And there’s also been an upward bump in recent years.

Since I’m not an expert on Israeli economic policy, I don’t know the degree to which Netanyahu deserves a lot of credit or a little credit, but it’s good to see a country actually moving in the right direction.

Let’s close by touching on two other points. First, there was one passage in the Forbes column that rubbed me the wrong way. Mr. Scott claimed that Netanyahu’s tax cuts worked and Reagan’s didn’t.

Netanyahu might have succeeded where President Reagan failed.

I think this is completely wrong. While it’s possible that the tax cuts in Israel has a bigger Laffer-Curve effect than the tax cuts in the United States, the IRS data clearly shows that Reagan’s lower tax rates led to more revenue from the rich.

Second, the U.S. phased out economic aid to Israel last decade. I suspect that step helped encourage better economic policy since Israeli policy makers knew that American taxpayers no longer would subsidize statism. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson there for other nations?

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I was in Montreal last week for a conference on tax competition, where I participated in a debate about whether the corporate income tax should be abolished with my crazy left-wing friend Richard Murphy.

But I don’t want to write about that debate, both because I was asked to take a position I don’t really support (I actually think corporate income should be taxed, but in a far less destructive fashion than the current system) and because the audience voted in favor of Richard’s position (the attendees were so statist that I felt like a civil rights protester before an all-white Alabama jury in 1965).

Instead, I want to highlight some of material presented by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, who also ventured into hostile territory to give a presentation on the reforms that have been implemented in his state.

Here are some slides from his presentation, starting with this summary of the main changes that have taken place. As you can see, personal income tax rates are being reduced and income taxes on small businesses have been abolished.

By the way, I don’t fully agree with these changes since I think all income should be taxed the same way. In other words, if there’s going to be a state income tax, then the guy who runs the local pet store should pay the same rate as the guy who works at the assembly plant.

But since the Governor said he ultimately wants Kansas to be part of the no-income-tax club, I think he agrees with that principle. When you’re enacting laws, though, you have to judge the results by whether policy is moving in the right direction, not by whether you’ve reached policy nirvana.

And there’ no doubt that the tax code in Kansas is becoming less onerous. Indeed, the only state in recent years that may have taken bigger positive steps is North Carolina.

In any event, what can we say about Brownback’s tax cuts? Have they worked? We’re still early in the process, but there are some very encouraging signs. Here’s a chart the Governor shared comparing job numbers in Kansas and neighboring states.

These are positive results, but not overwhelmingly persuasive since we don’t know why there are also improving numbers in Missouri and Colorado (though I suspect TABOR is one of the reasons Colorado is doing especially well).

But this next chart from Governor Brownback is quite compelling. It looks at migration patters between Kansas and Missouri. Traditionally, there wasn’t any discernible pattern, at least with regard to the income of migrants.

But once the Governor reduced tax rates and eliminated income taxes on small business, there’s been a spike in favor of Kansas. Which is particularly impressive considering that Kansas suffered a loss of taxable income to other states last decade.

But here’s the chart that is most illuminating. In addition to being home to the team that won the World Series, Kansas City is interesting because the metropolitan area encompasses both parts of Missouri and parts of Kansas.

So you can learn a lot by comparing not only migration patters between the two states, but also wage trends in the shared metropolitan area.

And if this chart is any indication, workers on the Kansas side are enjoying a growing wage differential.

So what’s the bottom line?

Like with all issues, it would be wrong to make sweeping claims. There are many issues beyond tax that impact competitiveness. Moreover, we’ll know more when there is 20 years of data rather than a few years of data.

That being said, Kansas clearly is moving in the right direction. All you have to do is compare economic performance in Texas and California to see that low-tax states out-perform high-tax states.

Indeed, if Kansas can augment good tax policies with a Colorado-style spending cap, the state will be in a very strong position.

P.S. This joke also helps explain the difference between California and Texas.

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I’ve already commented several times on the good and bad features of the Nordic Model, largely to correct the false narrative being advanced by Bernie Sanders (though I was writing on this issue well before the Vermont Senator decided to run for Chief Commissar President of the United States).

In any event, Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist and he says he wants to adopt Scandinavian policies in the United States because he thinks this will boost the poor.

Yet he may want to check his premise. Warren Meyer of Coyote Blog looked at the numbers and concluded that poor people are not better off in Nordic countries.

When folks like Bernie Sanders say that we have more income inequality than Sweden or Denmark, this is certainly true. …Sanders implies that this greater income equality means the poor are better off in these countries, he is very probably wrong.  Because the data tends to show that while the middle class in the US is richer than the middle class in Denmark, and the rich in the US are richer than the rich in Denmark, the poor in the US are not poorer than those in Denmark. And isn’t this what we really care about?  The absolute well-being of the poor?

Regarding his rhetorical question, the answer may not be yes. As Margaret Thatcher famously observed, some statists resent the rich more than they care about the less fortunate.

But the motives of the left is not our focus today. Instead, we want to know whether the poor are worse off in the U.S. than in Nordic nations.

Meyer’s article seeks to measure living standards for different income classes in the United States and then compare them to living standards for different income classes in Denmark and Sweden.

Meyer found some data on this issue from the Economic Policy Institute, the same source that I cited in my 2007 study on the Nordic Model (see Figure 9 on page 11).

But he wanted to update and expand on that data. So he started digging.

I used data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center.  …the same data set used by several folks on the Left (John Cassidy and Kevin Drum) to highlight inequality issues…  I then compared the US to several other countries, looking at the absolute well-being of folks at different income percentile levels.  I have used both exchange rates and purchasing price parity (PPP) for the comparison.

And what did Meyer discover?

…all the way down to at least the 10th percentile poorest people, the poor in the US are as well or better off than the poor in Denmark and Sweden.  And everyone else, including those at the 20th and 25th percentile we would still likely call “poor”, are way better off in the US.

Here’s the data for Denmark.

As you can see, the poor in both nations have similar levels of income, but all other income classes in the United States are better off than their Danish counterparts.

And here’s the comparison of the United States and Sweden.

Once again, it’s very clear that America’s smaller overall burden of government generates  more prosperity.

So here’s the bottom line. If you’re a poor person in America, your income is as high as the incomes of your counterparts in Scandinavia.

But you have a much better chance of out-earning your foreign counterparts if you begin the climb the economic ladder. Yes, that means more “inequality,” but that’s why the term is meaningless. By the standards of any normal and rational person, the US system is producing better outcomes.

Now that we’ve ascertained that the United States is more prosperous than Nordic nations, let’s now say something nice about those countries by defending them against the scurrilous accusation that they follow socialist policies.

I’ve already shared my two cents on this issue, pointing out that neither Bernie Sanders nor Scandinavian nations properly can be considered socialist.

But if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the Prime Minister of Denmark, as reported by Vox.

Bernie Sanders…consistently references the social models of the Nordic states — and especially Denmark — as his idea of what democratic socialism is all about. But…Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said…he doesn’t think the socialist shoe fits. “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism,” he said, “therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

The key statement from the Prime Minister is that Denmark is not a “planned economy,” because that is what you automatically get when the government is in charge of allocating resources and controlling the means of production.

But since that doesn’t happen in Denmark, Mr. Rasmussen is exactly right that his country isn’t socialist.

It’s high tax, and that’s not good. There’s a huge amount of dependency on government because of redistribution programs, and that’s also not good.

But a high-tax welfare state is not the same as socialism. Indeed, nations such as Denmark and Sweden would be somewhere in between France and the United States on my statism spectrum.

By the way, don’t let anyone get away with claiming that Scandinavian nations somehow prove that big government isn’t an obstacle to a country becoming rich.

Yes, Nordic countries are rich by world standards, but the key thing to understand is that they became prosperous in the late 1800s and early 1900s, back when government was very small.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that nations such as Denmark and Sweden adopted big welfare states. And, not coincidentally, that’s when economic growth slowed in those countries.

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I periodically make comparisons of the United States and Europe that are not very flattering for our cousins across the Atlantic.

Though this isn’t because of any animus toward Europe. Indeed, I always enjoy my visits. And some of America’s best (albeit eroding) features, such as rule of law and dignity of the individual, are a cultural inheritance from that continent.

Nor am I trying to overstate America’s competitiveness, which actually has eroded considerably during this century.

Instead, I’m simply trying to make the narrow point that too much government is already causing serious problems in Europe, and I’m worried those problems are spreading to the United States.

Yet some of our statist friends, most notably Senator Bernie Sanders, think America should deliberately choose to be more like Europe.

They have this halcyon vision that the average European is more prosperous and they exclaim that this is proof that a big welfare state is benign. Or perhaps even beneficial.

So it was with great interest that I read a new article by Ryan McMaken of the Mises Institute. He takes a data-driven look at the America-v-Europe economic debate.

The battle over the assumed success of European socialism continues. Many European countries like Sweden have gained a reputation as being very wealthy in spite of their highly regulated and taxed economies. From there, many assume that the rest of Europe is more or less similar, even if slightly poorer. But if we look more closely at the data, a very different picture emerges.

Actually, I have a minor disagreement with the above passage.

Countries like Sweden and Denmark are highly taxed, but it’s not true that they’re highly regulated.

Or, to be more accurate, there almost surely is too much regulation in those nations, but since we’re discussing the relative economic performance of the United States and Europe, the relevant point is that there’s less government intervention in certain European countries (particularly Nordic nations) than there is in the United States.

The only reason that they generally lag behind the United States in the overall rankings is that they have very bad fiscal policy and that more than offsets the advantage they generally have over America in other categories.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s focus on the main point of the article, which is an effort to produce a neutral comparison of living standards in European nations and American states.

…if one is going to draw broad conclusions about poverty among various countries, GDP numbers are arguably not the best metric. For one, GDP per capita can be skewed upward by a small number of ultra-rich persons.  …I thought it might be helpful to use data that relies on median income data instead, so as to better account for inequalities in income and to get a better picture of what the median resident’s purchasing power.

McMaken uses OECD data to calculate relative levels of median income.

The nationwide median income for the US is in red. To the left of the red column are other OECD countries, and to the right of the red bar are individual US states. These national-level comparisons take into account taxes, and include social benefits (e.g., “welfare” and state-subsidized health care) as income. Purchasing power is adjusted to take differences in the cost of living in different countries into account. Since Sweden is held up as a sort of promised land by American socialists, let’s compare it first. We find that, if it were to join the US as a state, Sweden would be poorer than all but 12 states, with a median income of $27,167.

And here’s the chart he described (click to enlarge). Remember, this is a look at the income of the median (rather than mean) household, so the numbers are not distorted by the presence of people like Bill Gates.

Here’s some additional analysis based on his number-crunching.

With the exception of Luxembourg ($38,502), Norway ($35,528), and Switzerland ($35,083), all countries shown would fail to rank as high-income states were they to become part of the United States. In fact, most would fare worse than Mississippi, the poorest state. For example, Mississippi has a higher median income ($23,017) than 18 countries measured here. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and the United Kingdom all have median income levels below $23,000 and are thus below every single US state. …Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, has a median income ($25,528) level below all but 9 US states.

We could stop at this point and declare that the United States was more economically prosperous than all European nations other that oil-rich Norway and the twin financial centers of Switzerland and Luxembourg.

This doesn’t bode well for Bernie Sanders’ claim that America should be more like Sweden and Denmark.

But McMaken expands upon his analysis and explains that the above numbers actually are too generous to Europeans.

We’ve already accounted for cost of living at the national level (using PPP data), but the US is so much larger than all  other countries compared here, we really need to consider the regional cost of living in the United States. Were we to calculate real incomes based on the cost of living in each state, we’d find that real purchasing power is even higher in many of the lower-income states than we see above. Using the BEA’s regional price parity index, we can take now account for the different cost of living in different states.

And he produces a new graph, once again featuring the United States average in red, with other developed nations to the left and numbers for various states to the right.

McMaken gives some added context to these new adjusted-for-cost-of-living numbers.

…there’s less variation in the median income levels among the US states. That makes sense because many states with low median incomes also have a very low cost of living. …This has had the effect of giving us a more realistic view of the purchasing power of the median household in US states. It is also more helpful in comparing individual states to OECD members, many of which have much higher costs of living than places like the American south and midwest.  Now that we recognize how inexpensive it is to live in places like Tennessee, Florida, and Kentucky, we find that residents in those states now have higher median incomes than Sweden (a place that’s 30% more expensive than the US) and most other OECD countries measured.

And here’s the most powerful data from his article.

Once purchasing power among the US states is taken into account, we find that Sweden’s median income ($27,167) is higher than only six states… We find something similar when we look at Germany, but in Germany’s case, every single US state shows a higher median income than Germany. …None of this analysis should really surprise us.

In other words, even when we limit the comparison to Europe’s more successful welfare states, the United States does better.

Not because America is a hyper-free market jurisdiction like Hong Kong or Singapore. Instead, the U.S. does better simply because European nations deviate even further from the right recipe for prosperity.

I commented on some of these issues in this interview with Dana Loesch of Blaze TV, specifically noting that living standards in Denmark and Sweden are below American levels.

I also recycled my assertion that Bernie Sanders isn’t even a real socialist, at least if we’re relying on the technical economic definition of having the government own the means of production.

P.S. In typically blunt yet analytically rigorous fashion, Thomas Sowell identifies where Obama belongs on the economic spectrum.

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