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Archive for the ‘Competitiveness’ Category

I’m very fond of Estonia, and not just because of the scenery.

Back in the early 1990s, it was the first post-communist nation to adopt a flat tax.

More recently, it showed that genuine spending cuts were the right way to respond to the 2008 crisis (notwithstanding Paul Krugman’s bizarre attempt to imply that the 2008 recession was somehow caused by 2009 spending cuts).

This doesn’t mean Estonia is perfect. It is ranked #22 by Economic Freedom of the World, which is a respectable score, but that puts them not only behind the United States (#12), but also behind Switzerland (#4), Finland (#10), the United Kingdom (#12), Ireland (#14), and Denmark (#19).

And you can see from the chart that Estonia’s overall score has dropped slightly since 2006.

But I don’t believe in making the perfect the enemy of the good. Estonia is still a reasonably good role model for reform, particularly for nations that emerged from decades of communist enslavement.

You can see how good policy makes a difference, for instance, by comparing Estonia with Croatia (#70). At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Empire, living standards in Croatia were low, but they were about twice as high as they were in Estonia. Today, though, per-capita economic output in Estonia is about $4000 higher than in Croatia.

That’s a dramatic turnaround and it shows that markets are much better for people than statism. Sort of like the lesson we learn by comparing Poland (#48) and Ukraine (#122).

Let’s now take a closer look at one of the policies that has helped Estonia prosper. The flat tax was first adopted in 1994 and the rate was 26 percent. Since then, the rate has been gradually reduced and is now 20 percent.

For some people, the most amazing aspect of the Estonian flat tax is its simplicity, as noted by Kyle Pomerleau of the Tax Foundation.

Republican Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush claimed that it only takes 5 minutes to file taxes in Estonia. This claim was confirmed by a number of reporters and tax authorities in Estonia. For those of us that do our taxes by hand, this sounds like a dream. Depending on your situation, filing your taxes can tax a significant amount of time and due to the numerous steps involved (especially if you are claiming credits) may lead some to make errors. According to the IRS, it takes an average taxpayer with no business income 8 hours to fill out their 1040 and otherwise comply with the individual income tax. Triple that for those with business income.

For those keeping score, this means Estonia is kicking America’s derriere.

But Kyle is even more impressed by other features of the Estonian system.

…that it is not the best part of the Estonian tax code. The best part of the Estonian tax code has more to do with its tax base (what it taxes) rather than how fast people can pay their taxes. Specifically, the Estonian tax code has a fully-integrated individual and corporate income tax. This means that corporate income is taxed only once either at the entity level or at the individual level.

And this means Estonia’s flat tax is far better for growth than America’s system, which suffers from pervasive and destructive double taxation.

In total, the tax rate on corporate income is 20 percent in Estonia. Compare this to the integrated tax rate on corporate profits of 56 percent in the United States. Even more, this tax system provides de facto full expensing for capital investments because the corporate tax is only levied on the cash distributed to shareholders, which is also a significant boon to investment and economic growth.

Wow. No double taxation and expensing of business investment.

There is a lot to admire about Estonia’s sensible approach to business taxation.

Particularly when compared to America’s masochistic corporate income tax, which ranks below even the Greek, Italian, and Mexican systems.

Having the world’s highest statutory corporate tax rate is part of the problem. But as Kyle pointed out, the problem is actually far worse when you calculate how the internal revenue code imposes extra layers of tax on business income.

That’s why, at a recent tax reform event at the Heritage Foundation, I tried to emphasize why it’s economically misguided to have a tax bias against saving and investment.

The bottom line is that high taxes on capital ultimately lead to lower wages for workers.

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Folks on the left sometimes act as if the Nordic nations somehow prove that big government isn’t an impediment to prosperity.

As I’ve pointed out before, they obviously don’t spend much time looking at the data.

So let’s give them a reminder. Here are the rankings from Economic Freedom of the World. I’ve inserted red arrows to draw attention to the Nordic nations. As you can see, every single one of them is in the top quartile, meaning that they aren’t big-government jurisdictions by world standards.

Moreover, Finland ranks above the United States. Denmark is higher than Estonia, which is often cited a free-market success story. And all of them rank ahead of Slovakia, which also is known for pro-growth reforms.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean the Nordic nations are libertarian paradises. Far from it.

Government is far too big in those countries, just as it is far too big in the United States, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada, and other nations in the top quartile.

Which is tragic since the burden of government spending in North America and Western Europe used to be just a fraction of current levels – even in nations such as Sweden.

The way I’ve described the Nordic nations is that they have bloated and costly welfare states but compensate for that bad policy by being very free market in other policy areas.

But you don’t need to believe me. Nima Sanandaji has just written an excellent new monograph for the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. Entitled Scandinavian Unexceptionalism: Culture, Markets and the Failure of Third-Way Socialism, Nima’s work explains how the Nordic nations became rich during an era of small government and free markets, how they then veered in the wrong direction, but are now trying to restore more economic freedom.

Here are some key excerpts, starting with some much-needed economic history.

Scandinavia’s success story predated the welfare state. …As late as 1960, tax revenues in the Nordic nations ranged between 25 per cent of GDP in Denmark to 32 per cent in Norway – similar to other developed countries. …Scandinavia’s more equal societies also developed well before the welfare states expanded. Income inequality reduced dramatically during the last three decades of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, most of the shift towards greater equality happened before the introduction of a large public sector and high taxes. …The phenomenal national income growth in the Nordic nations occurred before the rise of large welfare states. The rise in living standards was made possible when cultures based on social cohesion, high levels of trust and strong work ethics were combined with free markets and low taxes….the Nordic success story reinforces the idea that business-friendly and small-government-oriented policies can promote growth.

Here’s a chart from the book showing remarkable growth for Sweden and Denmark in the pre-welfare state era.

Nima has extra details about his home country of Sweden.

In the hundred years following the market liberalisation of the late 19th century and the onset of industrialisation, Sweden experienced phenomenal economic growth (Maddison 1982). Famous Swedish companies such as IKEA, Volvo, Tetra Pak, H&M, Ericsson and Alfa Laval were all founded during this period, and were aided by business-friendly economic policies and low taxes.

Unfortunately, Nordic nations veered to the left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, not surprisingly, that’s when growth began to deteriorate.

The third-way radical social democratic era in Scandinavia, much admired by the left, only lasted from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. The rate of business formation during the third-way era was dreadful.
Again, he has additional details about Sweden.
Sweden’s wealth creation slowed down following the transition to a high tax burden and a large public sector. …As late as 1975 Sweden was ranked as the 4th richest nation in the world according to OECD measures….the policy shift that occurred dramatically slowed down the growth rate. Sweden dropped to 13th place in the mid 1990s. …It is interesting that the left rarely discusses this calamitous Swedish growth performance from 1970 to 2000.

The good news is that Nordic nations have begun to shift back toward market-oriented policies. Some of them have reduced the burden of government spending. All of them have lowered tax rates, particularly on business and investment income. And there have even been some welfare reforms.

…there has been a tentative return to free markets. In education in Sweden, parental choice has been promoted. There has also been reform to pensions systems, sickness benefits and labour market regulations

But there’s no question that the welfare state and its concomitant tax burden are still the biggest problem in the region. Which  is why it is critical that Nordic nations maintain pro-market policies on regulation, trade, monetary policy, rule of law and property rights.

Scandinavian countries have compensated for a large public sector by increasing economic liberty in other areas. During recent decades, Nordic nations have implemented major market liberalisations to compensate for the growth-inhibiting effects of taxes and labour market policies.

Let’s close with what I consider to be the strongest evidence from Nima’s publication. He shows that Scandinavians who emigrated to America are considerably richer than their counterparts who stayed put.

Median incomes of Scandinavian descendants are 20 per cent higher than average US incomes. It is true that poverty rates in Scandinavian countries are lower than in the US. However, the poverty rate among descendants of Nordic immigrants in the US today is half the average poverty rate of Americans – this has been a consistent finding for decades. In fact, Scandinavian Americans have lower poverty rates than Scandinavian citizens who have not emigrated. …the median household income in the United States is $51,914. This can be compared with a median household income of $61,920 for Danish Americans, $59,379 for Finnish-Americans, $60,935 for Norwegian Americans and $61,549 for Swedish Americans. There is also a group identifying themselves simply as ‘Scandinavian Americans’ in the US Census. The median household income for this group is even higher at $66,219. …Danish Americans have a contribution to GDP per capita 37 per cent higher than Danes still living in Denmark; Swedish Americans contribute 39 percent more to GDP per capita than Swedes living in Sweden; and Finnish Americans contribute 47 per cent more than Finns living in Finland.

In other words, when you do apples to apples comparisons, either of peoples or nations, you find that smaller government and free markets lead to more prosperity.

That’s the real lesson from the Nordic nations.

P.S. Just in case readers think I’m being too favorable to the Nordic nations, rest assured that I’m very critical of the bad policies in these nations.

Just look at what I’ve written, for instance, about Sweden’s healthcare system or Denmark’s dependency problem.

But I will give praise when any nation, from any part of the world, takes steps in the right direction.

And I do distinguish between the big-government/free-market systems you find in Nordic nations and the big-government/crony-intervention systems you find in countries like France and Greece.

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Every so often, I get asked why I’m so rigidly opposed to tax hikes in general and so vociferously against the imposition of new taxes in particular.

In part, my hostility is an ideological reflex When pressed, though, I’ll confess that there are situations – in theory – where more taxes might be acceptable.

But there’s a giant gap between theory and reality. In the real world, I can’t think of a single instance in which higher taxes led to a fiscally responsible outcome.

That’s true on the national level. And it’s also true at the state level.

Speaking of which, the Wall Street Journal is – to put it mildly – not very happy at the tax-aholic behavior of Connecticut politicians. Here’s some of what was in a recent editorial.

The Census Bureau says Connecticut was one of six states that lost population in fiscal 2013-2014, and a Gallup poll in the second half of 2013 found that about half of Nutmeg Staters would migrate if they could. Now the Democrats who run the state want to drive the other half out too. That’s the best way to explain the frenzy by Governor Dannel Malloy and the legislature to raise taxes again… Mr. Malloy promised last year during his re-election campaign that he wouldn’t raise taxes, but that’s what he also said in 2010. In 2011 he signed a $2.6 billion tax hike promising that it would eliminate a budget deficit. Having won re-election he’s now back seeking another $650 million in tax hikes. But that’s not enough for the legislature, which has floated $1.5 billion in tax increases. Add a state-wide municipal sales tax that some lawmakers want, and the total could hit $2.1 billion over two years.

In other words, higher taxes in recent years have been used to fund more spending.

And now the politicians are hoping to play the same trick another time.

Apparently they don’t care that they’ve turned the Nutmeg State into a New England version of Illinois.

…the state grew a scant 0.9% in 2013, the last year state data are available. That was tied for tenth worst in the U.S. The state’s average compounded annual growth for the last four years is 0.42%. Slow growth means less tax revenue but spending never slows down. Some “40% of the state budget goes to government employee compensation and benefits, including payroll, state pensions, teacher pensions and current and retiree health care,” says Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Hartford-based Yankee Institute. …The Tax Foundation ranks Connecticut as one of the 10 worst states to do business. The state finished last in Gallup’s Job Creation Index in 2014 and now ties with Rhode Island for the worst job creation in the index since 2008.

What’s particularly discouraging is that Connecticut didn’t even have an income tax twenty-five years ago. But once the politicians got a new source of revenue, it’s been one tax hike after another.

Not too many years ago Connecticut was a tax refuge for New York City workers, but since it imposed an income tax in 1991 the rate has kept climbing, as it always does.

There are a couple of lessons from the disaster in Connecticut.

First and foremost, never give politicians a new source of revenue, which has very important implications for the debate in Washington, DC, about a value-added tax.

Unless, of course, you want to enable a bigger burden of government.

And for the states that don’t already have an income tax, the lesson is very clear. Under no circumstances should you allow your politicians to follow Connecticut on the path to fiscal perfidy.

Yet that’s exactly what may be happening in America’s northwest corner. As reported by the Seattle Times, there’s a plan percolating to create an income tax in the state of Washington. It’s being sold as a revenue swap.

State Treasurer Jim McIntire has a “grand bargain” in mind on tax reform and he wants to bend your ear. …the McIntire plan would institute a 5 percent personal-income tax with some exemptions, eliminate the state property tax and reduce business taxes. The plan would raise billions of dollars… The proposal also would lower the state sales tax to 5.5 percent from 6.5 percent.

But taxpayers should be very suspicious, particularly since politicians are talking about the need for more “investment,” which is a common rhetorical trick used by politicians who want to squander more money.

“It is mathematically impossible for us to sustain an adequate investment in education on a shrinking tax base,” he said.

And when you read the fine print, it turns out that the politicians (and the interest groups in the government bureaucracy) want a lot more additional money from taxpayers.

…the plan would raise $7 billion in state revenue but would lower local levies by $3 billion, for an overall increase of about $4 billion.

Advocates of the new tax would prefer to avoid any discussion of big-picture principles.

“We need to have less of an ideological conversation about this,” he said in a news conference.

And their desire to avoid a philosophical discussion is understandable. After all, the big spenders didn’t fare so well the last time voters had a chance to vote on whether the state should impose an income tax.

Voters may not welcome McIntire’s argument, either. In 2010, a proposed income tax on high earners failed by a nearly 30-point margin.

The voters in Washington were very wise back in 2010, so let’s hope they haven’t lost their skepticism about the revenue plans of politicians over the past few years.

There’s every reason to suspect, after all, that the adoption of an income tax would be just as disastrous for the Evergreen State as it was for the Nutmeg State.

To close, I want to share some great advice that was presented by the always sound Professor Richard Vedder. I was at a conference a few years ago where he was also one of the speakers. Asked to comment on whether the Lone Star State should have an income tax, he threw his hands in the air and cried out with passion that, “Texas should give the Alamo to Osama bin Laden before allowing an income tax.”

So if I’m ever asked to speak in Seattle on fiscal policy, I’m going to steal Richard’s approach and and warn that “The state of Washington should give the Space Needle to North Korea before allowing an income tax.”

I doubt I’ll capture Professor Vedder’s rhetorical flair, but there won’t be any doubt that I’ll be 100-percent serious about the dangers of a state income tax.

And what about my home state of Connecticut?

Well, I don’t know of any big landmarks that they could have traded to avoid an income tax. About the only “good” thing to say is that New York’s tax system is probably even worse.

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There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you. Unfortunately, politicians in Washington don’t follow that advice.

Let me explain. All economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a necessary condition for long-run growth and higher wages.

The Marxists and the socialists are misguided in thinking that government has the capacity to be in charge of saving and investing, but at least they recognize that you have to set aside some of today’s income to finance tomorrow’s growth. And they even understand that capital formation leads to more productivity and higher wages.

The politicians, however, act as if they don’t understand the importance of saving and investment. Or, based on the policies we get from Washington, maybe they simply don’t care about the well-being of workers, savers, and investors.

Which is a very short-sighted attitude since capital formation leads to a bigger tax base (i.e., more income that they can tax), which is something they presumably should care about!

I’m pondering this conundrum because of a thought-provoking column. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Duesterberg and Donald Norman explore the very important question of why corporations are in very strong shape while investment is lagging.

Corporate profits and cash flow are strong, cash on the books of American firms is at record highs… Yet capital investment, which is one of the main pillars of growing productivity and rising living standards, is historically weak. …In 2014, real gross domestic product was 8.7% above the level it reached just before the onset of the great recession in late 2007, …yet gross private investment was just 3.9% higher. Private investment net of depreciation—an even better measure of keeping up production and innovation capacity—was $524 billion in 2013 (the last year for which we have good data), compared with $860 billion in 2006.

Why is this a problem?

For the simple reason that less investment means lower productivity. And lower productivity translates into stagnant wages.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that labor productivity grew at an average rate of just 1.5% a year between 2005 and 2014, and by 0.7% a year since 2011. These numbers compare poorly with the average annual growth rates of 3.3% between 1948 and 1973, and 3.2% between 1996 and 2004.

So why has investment been weak?

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that bad government policy is at the top of the list. Having the world’s highest corporate tax rate obviously doesn’t help.

…one clear factor—noted by many economic analysts—is corporate tax rates, including effective tax rates. These rates can sway decisions about where companies locate new production or research facilities.

Mindless regulation and red tape also puts a costly burden on the economy’s productive sector.

Regulation is also a growing burden. For example, a 2012 study by NERA Economic Consulting notes that the number of major regulations in the manufacturing sector has grown at the compound annual rate of 7.6% since 1998, compared with only 2.2% average annual growth in GDP. …in the World Economic Forum’s annual “Global Competitiveness Report.” …in the category for “burden of government regulation” the latest report ranks the U.S. 82nd of 144.

America also is falling behind in trade.

More than 400 regional free trade agreements have come into effect since 1995, but the United States is party to just two of these and to 10 smaller-scale bilateral agreements. Europe has 38 separate FTAs, and Mexico has added Europe and all of Latin America to its arsenal, which is one reason cited by Audi recently in locating its newest plant there instead of in the U.S.

Last but not least, the overall policy environment in Washington is creating “regime uncertainty.”

A number of studies—including one at Stanford led by Nicholas Bloom and Scott Baker, and at the University of Chicago led by Steven Davis—have employed sophisticated models to chart what is seen as a secular trend in growth of uncertainty that is tied to growth in government regulation, spending, taxes…major shifts in monetary policy probably also contribute to uncertainty.

In other words, investment is lagging both because of the bad policies that have been imposed and because of the expectation/fear that there will be additional burdens coming from Washington.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that corporations are sitting on record piles of cash. Simply stated, it doesn’t make much sense to invest if there’s little hope of future profits.

And don’t be surprised that banks also are sitting on record piles of cash for the same reason.

When I share this kind of information with some of my leftist friends, I frequently get a visceral response about how they won’t shed any tears just because there are fewer profitable opportunities for “fatcat investors” and “rich corporations.”

That reaction doesn’t bother me, at least in the sense that I never lose sleep about the financial health of Warren Buffett or General Electric.

But then I ask my statist friends whether we should be concerned about the “collateral damage” that occurs when lower levels of investment result in less productivity growth, which translates into stagnant wages for ordinary Americans.

Here’s the bottom line. If you punish investors, you also punish workers. This is why, as Walter Williams has explained, the class-warfare mentality is so destructive.

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Even small differences in economic growth make a big difference to living standards over time.

I frequently share this chart, which highlights how long it takes to double economic output based on different growth rates.

I also use real-world examples to show how some nations become much richer than other nations within just a few decades because of better policy and faster growth.

Here’s another way to approach the issue. Let’s use a hypothetical example to reinforce the importance of growth. If we went back to 1870 and assumed our economy’s nominal growth rate was one percentage point slower than it actually was (in other words, averaging 4.76 percent each year rather than 5.76 percent), our living standards today would be only 1/4th of current levels.

That’s a huge difference in national prosperity. We’d be about the level of Kazakhstan today!

In a column for the Wall Street Journal last week, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy and businessman Louis Woodhill used the same approach to make a similar point about the incredible importance of long-run growth. They go back even further in time and come up with an even more sobering example.

The recovery that began in 2009 is the weakest in postwar history. Millions have dropped out the labor force, frustrated by lack of opportunity. Lower-income workers are underemployed, middle-incomes have not advanced as in the past, and government dependency has increased. …ignored is what really matters: rapid, sustained economic growth. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the U.S. economy will grow by a meager 2.3% over the next decade… At this growth rate, Americans face a future of stagnation, inequality and despair. Here’s why: From 1790 to 2014, U.S. GDP in real dollars grew at an average annual rate of 3.73%. Had America grown at the CBO’s “economic speed limit” of 2.3% for its entire history, GDP would be $780 billion today instead of more than $17 trillion. And GDP per capita would be $2,433, lower than Papua New Guinea’s.

This is why (good) economists are so fixated on economic growth. It’s vital for our long-run living standards.

Which means, of course, that we’re also fixated on the importance of free markets and small government. We understand that an economy will grow much faster if the burden of government is constrained (think Hong Kong or Singapore).

But if the public sector is bloated, with high levels of spending, taxation, regulation, cronyism, and protectionism, then it’s very difficult for the productive sector of the economy to flourish.

Let’s augment our understanding by comparing two nations, Estonia and Croatia, that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Estonia has been a role model for pro-growth reform. According to Economic Freedom of the World, the small Baltic nation quickly moved to reduce the burden of government (including a flat tax) and Estonia consistently has been in the top 20 of all nations.

Croatia, by contrast, has lagged. While its economic freedom score has improved, the progress has been modest and Croatia has never been ranked higher than #70.

So what are the real-world results of what happened in these two nations?

The simple answer is that good policy yields good results. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing per-capita GDP in both Estonia and Croatia.

The most relevant lesson, which I highlighted, is that Croatia was much richer at the beginning of the post-Soviet period.

But Estonia quickly caught up because of its reforms. And over the past 10 years, Croatia has fallen significantly behind.

The key takeaway is that growth matters. And if you want growth, you need economic freedom.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned Wall Street Journal column. Cassidy and Woodhill are totally correct to worry about the “new normal” of anemic growth.

Fortunately, we know the policies that will rejuvenate the economy. And maybe we’ll get a chance to implement those policies after the 2016 election.

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There are some things in life that are guaranteed to make me smile.

Georgia Bulldog victories are on that list, of course, and I also relish occasional moments of glory on the softball field.

Shifting to the world of public policy, nothing warms my heart and brings a smile to my face faster than news that taxpayers have successfully escaped the greedy and grasping claws of government.

I cheered when successful French taxpayers moved across the border when Francois Hollande imposed a 75 percent class-warfare tax rate. And I was overjoyed when elitist French politicians whined that the geese with the golden eggs were escaping.

I was happy to learn about consumers traveling across borders to escape punitive air-travel taxes in places such as England and the Netherlands.

I applauded when Toyota moved hundreds of jobs from high-tax California to low-tax Texas. And when oppressed taxpayers successfully escaped from New Jersey. Or from Detroit.

I also was glad to find out that Americans can dramatically reduce their tax bills by moving to Puerto Rico, which is a completely legal tax haven for U.S. citizens.

I’m even happy when American companies use “inversions” to get out from under America’s insanely punitive approach to business taxation. I’ll also defend individual Americans who reluctantly give up their passports to protect themselves from confiscatory taxation.

The common theme in all these examples is that politicians were unable to seize as much money as they hoped because taxpayers had the ability to shift economic activity to jurisdictions with better policy.

This is why tax competition is so praiseworthy – and also why we need to be so concerned about sinister efforts to create cartels for the purpose of replacing this liberalizing process with an “OPEC for politicians.”

But I’m guilty of digressing. Today, we simply want to focus on good news.

And I know this Bloomberg story made me feel all warm and fuzzy. Here are some excerpts about the looming decision of at least one bank to escape excessive English taxes.

HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, has faced calls to move its domicile away from the British capital after the government increased the levy on bank’s balance sheets for an eighth time this year. HSBC is hit the hardest by the tax and paid 750 million pounds ($1.1 billion) last year. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have pledged a more onerous tax regime for banks in their manifestos for the May 7 U.K. election. “Banks and pay are still easy cannon fodder for politicians,” said Jonathan Tyce, senior banks analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in London. “The lines between the Labour and Conservative parties are more blurred than usual and either way, it doesn’t look promising for banks or bankers.” …Standard Chartered Plc, another British bank that like HSBC makes most of its profit in Asia, is also being urged by Aberdeen Asset Management Plc, its second-largest shareholder, to relocate to Asia because of the cost of being in London.

Good. I hope both banks leave.

While I have grudgingly admitted that David Cameron’s government has done a decent job of restraining spending in recent years, taxpayers haven’t reaped many dividends. Yes, there have been some very successful reductions in the corporate tax rate and a modest reduction in the top tax rate on personal income, but these reforms were more than offset by big tax hikes when Cameron first took power.

P.S. If I understand correctly, HSBC didn’t get a bailout during the financial crisis. But if I’m wrong and the bank did mooch off taxpayers, then I’m much less sympathetic.

P.P.S. Shifting to another topic, I like to share examples of how some nations enjoy faster growth than others, mostly because these comparison invariably help to show why small government and free markets are the best route to prosperity.

To echo this point, here’s a very enlightening chart I just saw on Twitter, which shows per-capita economic output for a group of nations that were all roughly equal back in 1997.

What’s remarkable is that a couple of those nations dramatically boosted living standards in a very short period of time while others have stagnated.

And since I’ve written about the good reforms in Estonia and Poland and complained about bad policy in Venezuela and South Africa, you can understand why this is yet another example of why leftists have no good response to my two-part challenge.

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Free trade is a good moral concept for the simple reason that politicians and bureaucrats should not be allowed to interfere with voluntary transactions between consenting adults.

It’s also a good economic concept for the simple reason that protectionists can’t provide good answers to simple questions.

And free trade is a good geopolitical concept because it is far better than foreign aid as a mechanism for generating prosperity in less-developed nations.

Writing for the Economic Times of India, Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center writes about the benefits of open markets among nations.

With one simple policy—more free trade—we could make the world $500 trillion better off and lift 160 million people out of extreme poverty. …reducing trade barriers not only makes the world richer, it is a great enabler for reducing poverty, curtailing hunger, improving health and restoring the environment. …Freer trade essentially means that each country can focus on doing what it does best, making all countries better off.

The good news is that global trade has been substantially liberalized. Protectionist barriers are much lower than they were a few decades ago.

Indeed, shifts to freer trade have helped compensate for growing fiscal burdens in the post-WWII era.

But we also have bad news. There are still sectors where trade taxes and other protectionist policies inhibit voluntary exchange, most notably for agriculture and textiles.

Lomborg cites data about the huge gains that would be possible if these sectors were liberalized.

The direct economic benefits would be a 1.1 per cent increase in global GDP. This sounds modest. But because it would impact the entire world economy, by 2030 we would be about $1.5 trillion richer every year. Open economies also grow faster. In the last 50 years, countries as diverse as South Korea, Chile and India have seen their rate of growth shoot up by 1.5 per cent per annum on average, shortly after liberalisation. If Doha can be completed, it is estimated that the global economy will grow by an extra 0.6 per cent for the next few decades. By 2030, such dynamic growth would make the world economy $11.5 trillion larger each year, leaving us 10 per cent more resources to fix all other problems. …By the end of the century, free trade could leave our grandkids 20 per cent better off, or with $100 trillion more every year than they would otherwise have had.

Lomborg is making the very important point that even modest increases in growth, sustained over long periods of time, can lead to huge increases in prosperity.

He correctly applies this analysis to the trade sector, but it’s a lesson that has universal applicability. It’s why we need better tax policy, a lower burden of government spending, less regulation and red tape, and better rule of law to limit government corruption.

But today’s focus is trade, so let’s look at a great video from Marginal Revolution University. Here’s Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University talking about the benefits of trade.

By the way, I didn’t notice it at first, but Tyler’s video doesn’t focus on international trade. He simply explains the benefit of trade among people.

But this also helps to explain why free trade across borders is good for growth. If it’s good for two people inside Virginia to engage in voluntary exchange, and if it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ohio to engage in voluntary exchange, then it’s also true that it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ireland to engage in voluntary exchange.

Another subtle yet important secondary point from the video is that central planning is folly because no single bureaucrat, or group of bureaucrats, will ever have the necessary knowledge (much less incentive) to properly allocate resources. To elaborate, you just listened to Prof. Cowen explain that one of the big benefits of trade is that people can specialize in things where they have a comparative advantage. And when people specialize, they develop greater knowledge in particular fields, which further increases their productivity. Yet it’s impossible for that diffuse knowledge to be centralized, much less used properly.

Which is why centrally planned economies such as North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela are such disasters.

And this also explains why nations that normally rely on markets get such bad results when politicians take control of specific sectors of the economy. Just consider the failures of Obamacare and the U.K.’s government-run healthcare system.

But let’s get back to the issue of trade.

Politicians sometimes make arguments about “economic patriotism.” If that simply meant, for instance, that they wanted a lower corporate tax rate to make American companies and workers more competitive, that would be fine.

But as we’ve seen with Obama, language about patriotism oftentimes is a ruse to push for protectionism and other bad policies.

And one of the reasons why the protectionism-patriotism argument doesn’t make sense is that it presumes a contest among nations. Yet as Walter Williams wisely explained, trade ultimately is between private individuals.

P.S. The MRU videos are great tutorials about economics. In prior posts, I’ve shared videos explaining how taxes destroy economic value, highlighting the valuable role of market-based prices, and revealing the destructive impact of government subsidies. They’re all worth a few minutes of your time.

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