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Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Good fiscal policy means low tax rates and spending restraint.

And that’s a big reason why I’m a fan of Reaganomics.

Unlike other modern presidents (including other Republicans), Reagan successfully reduced the tax burden while also limiting the burden of government spending.

President Biden wants to take the opposite approach.

A few days ago, Dan Balz of the Washington Post provided some “news analysis” about Biden’s fiscal agenda. Some of what he wrote was accurate, noting that the president wants to increase spending by an additional $6 trillion over the next 10 years.

…the scope and implications of his domestic agenda have come sharply into focus. Together they represent the most dramatic shift in federal economic and social welfare policy since Ronald Reagan was elected 40 years ago. …The politics of redistribution, which are at the heart of what Biden is proposing, could test decades of assumptions that Democrats should be afraid of being tagged as the party of big government. …Together, the already approved coronavirus relief plan, the infrastructure proposal that was unveiled a few weeks ago and the newly proposed plan to invest in social welfare programs would total roughly $6 trillion.

But Mr. Balz then decided to be either sloppy or dishonest, writing that we’ve had decades of Reagan-style policies that have squeezed domestic spending and disproportionately lowered tax burden for rich people.

Reagan’s small-government philosophy resulted in a decades-long squeeze on the federal government, especially domestic spending, and on tax policies that mainly benefited the wealthiest Americans. …Government spending on social safety-net programs has been reduced compared with previous years.

Balz is wrong, wildly wrong.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s a chart, taken from an October 2020 report by the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see, people in the lowest income quintile have been the biggest winners,, with their average tax rate dropping from about 10 percent to about 2 percent..

Here’s a chart showing marginal tax rates from a January 2019 CBO report. As you can see, Reagan lowered marginal tax rates for everyone, but Balz’s assertion that the rich got the lion’s share of the benefits is hard to justify considering that people in the bottom quintile now have negative marginal tax rates.

Balz’s mistakes on tax policy are significant.

But his biggest error (or worst dishonesty) occurred when he wrote about a “decades-long squeeze” on domestic spending and asserted that “spending on social safety-net programs has been reduced.”

A quick visit to the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables is all that’s needed to debunk this nonsense. Here’s a chart, based on Table 8.2, showing the inflation-adjusted growth of entitlements and domestic discretionary programs.

Call me crazy, but I’m seeing a rapid increase in domestic spending after Reagan left office.

P.S. There’s a pattern of lazy/dishonest fiscal reporting at the Washington Post.

P.P.S. I also can’t resist noting that Balz wrote how Biden wants to “invest” in social welfare programs, as if there’s some sort of positive return from creating more dependency. Reminds me of this Chuck Asay cartoon from the Obama years.

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If nothing else, Biden’s big-government agenda is triggering a debate about fundamental issues, such as whether it’s a good idea to make America’s economy more like Singapore or more like Italy.

In making the case for the Italian approach of higher taxes and bigger government during his speech to Congress, President Biden exclaimed that “trickle-down economics has never worked.”

But we need to realize that Biden is using a straw-man definition. In his mind, “trickle-down economics” is giving a tax cut to rich people under the assumption that some of that cash eventually will wind up in other people’s pockets.

However, if you actually ask proponents of pro-growth tax policy what they support, they will explain that they want lower tax rates for everyone in order to reduce penalties on productive behaviors such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

And they will be especially interested in getting rid of the tax code’s bias against saving and investment.

Why? Because every economic theory – even socialism, even Marxism – agrees that saving and investment are a key to long-run growth and rising living standards.

Which is why there’s such a strong relationship in the data between the amount of capital and workers’ wages.

Indeed, it’s almost a tautology to say that this form of “trickle-down taxation” leads to higher productivity, which leads to higher wages for workers.

As Stanford Professor John Shoven observed several decades ago:

The mechanism of raising real wages by stimulating investment is sometimes derisively referred to as “trickle-down” economics. But regardless of the label used, no one doubts that the primary mechanism for raising the return to work is providing each worker with better and more numerous tools. One can wonder about the length of time it takes for such a policy of increasing saving and investments to have a pronounced effect on wages, but I know of no one who doubts the correctness of the underlying mechanism. In fact, most economists would state the only way to increase real wages in the long run is through extra investments per worker.

In other words, everyone agrees with the “trickle-down economics” as a concept, but people disagree on other things.

So I guess it depends on how the term is defined. If it simply means tax cuts while ignoring other policies (or making those other policies worse, like we saw during the Bush years or Trump years), then you can make an argument that trickle-down economics has a mediocre track record.

But if the term is simply shorthand for a broader agenda of encouraging more saving and investment with an agenda of small government and free markets, then trickle-down economics has a great track record.

For instance, here’s a chart from the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World. Nations with market-oriented economies are far more prosperous than countries with state-controlled economies.

By the way, Biden is not an honest redistributionist.

Instead of admitting that higher taxes and bigger government will lead to less economic output (and justifying that outcome by saying incomes will be more equal), Biden actually wants people to believe that bigger government somehow will lead to more prosperity.

To be fair, he’s not the only one to make this argument. Bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also have claimed that there will be more prosperity if governments get more control over the economy.

I call this the “magic beans” theory of economic development.

Which is why I always ask people making this argument to cite a single example – anywhere in the world, at any point in history – of a nation that has prospered by expanding the burden of government.

In other words, I want a response to my never-answered question.

The response is always deafening silence.

To be sure, I don’t expect Joe Biden to answer the question. Or to understand economics. Heck, I don’t even expect him to care. He’s just trying to buy votes, using other people’s money.

But there are plenty of smart folks on the left, and none of them have a response to the never-answered question, either. Heck, none of them have ever given me a good reason why we should copy Europe when incomes are so much lower on that side of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Way back in 2010, I shared this video explaining how “gross domestic product” and “gross domestic income” are basically the same number, but warning that the former leads to sloppy thinking (including the Keynesian myth that consumer spending drives the economy).

Since President Biden is seeking to resuscitate Keynesian Economics, let’s revisit this topic.

The first thing I want to do is to reassure skeptical readers that there’s nothing remotely controversial about my assertion that GDP and GDI are equivalent measures. It’s simply the common-sense recognition that total spending in a country is going to closely match total income.

If you really want to get into the technical weeds, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has a very detailed document showing how all the measurements fit with each other. Feel free to read that material by clicking here.

But if you don’t have the time or inclination to wade through all that material, here are two charts from the document that capture what’s important, at least for purposes of our discussion about macroeconomic policy.

First, here’s a chart showing that GDP and GDI are two ways of arriving at the same number (though never exactly identical because of statistical discrepancies).

And if you really want to be a wonk, here’s the BEA’s depiction of GDP and GDI, along with a bunch of other measures of economic output.

And if all that boring background doesn’t convince you that it’s okay to equate GDP and GDI, let’s go back to 2018 and look at a column in the Wall Street Journal by Jason Furman, who was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for President Obama

…the data aren’t perfect. …GDP is not measured directly. Instead, the BEA sums up economy-wide expenditures from dozens of data sources, covering consumption, investment, government spending, net exports and more. …the underlying data are noisy and incomplete, meaning that revisions to GDP growth estimates can be large and often confusing. …Drawing on more data can cancel out some of this noise and produce a more accurate figure that requires smaller revisions. Specifically, the BEA separately gauges the size of the economy by adding up all the different sources of income, such as wages and profits. This figure is called gross domestic income, or GDI… Ultimately, GDI should be identical to GDP, since all money spent is money earned.

With all that out of the way, now let’s move to some analysis that actually is controversial (not in my mind, of course, but my left-leaning friends probably won’t agree with me).

As explained in the video, and as I wrote back in 2013, people without much knowledge about economics draw inaccurate conclusions when using data on GDP .

But don’t take my word for it. Professor Alexander William Salter of Texas Tech University described, in an article for National Review, how GDP accounting equations are mistakenly interpreted to justify more government spending.

The most egregious abuses of economics that we see today start with an accounting identity — a true statement or equation — but end with an absurd economic claim. …Here’s an example: If you’ve taken an introductory economics course, this equation is probably familiar to you: Y=C+I+G+(X-IM). In plain English: Gross Domestic Product (GDP, in this equation ‘Y’) is the sum of consumption (C), investment (I), government spending (G), and net exports (X-IM). This is the foundation of national-income accounting, and it’s true by construction. GDP is defined as the sum of these things. Nothing in this equation tells us how the economy actually works. …often it’s misused. Here’s a case from the Left: Because government expenditures enter positively into GDP, increased government spending raises GDP. Simple, right? Not so fast. …Uncle Sam spending more doesn’t increase the size of the economic pie. It just redistributes existing slices to Uncle Sam, or to whomever Uncle Sam finances. More public-sector consumption means less private-sector consumption.

That’s a look at theory.

He also applies theory to reality, most recently in a column for the Wall Street Journal about Biden’s supposed infrastructure plan.

Whether public or private, spending doesn’t cause growth. Mr. Stiglitz and his allies have it backward: Consumption is downstream from production. Growth is about increasing the supply of goods over time; you can’t spend if the goods haven’t been produced. Production grows as technology and production processes improve. Such improvement requires saving and investing rather than consuming. …all the financing in the world won’t boost productivity if it isn’t channeled correctly. More-efficient producers, not partisan spending, create economic flourishing. Though the president’s plans will consume plenty, they’ll produce only disappointment.

That last sentence is an apt summary. A bigger government means a smaller economy.

The empirical evidence shows that nations with smaller fiscal burdens economically out-perform countries with large welfare states. Simply stated, there’s an incentive for efficiency in the private sector, whereas people in Washington are governed by the perverse incentives described by “public choice” theory.

I’ll close with a relevant caveat that was mentioned in the above video. It is possible for a nation to consume more than it produces. But only if it borrows from overseas, and only at the cost of having to sacrifice future income to service the additional debt.

P.S. If you want more information, here’s my video on Keynesian Economics, and here’s my 4-part series on the economics of government spending.

P.P.S. I also wrote about GDP vs. GDI in 2017, in part to debunk some grotesquely dishonest reporting by Time.

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While debunking OECD and IMF research on inequality, I explained that it’s important to distinguish between income that is earned honestly and loot that is obtained thanks to government cronyism.

That’s also the message of this video from the Hoover Institution.

In the video, David Henderson contrasts how our lives are improved when an entrepreneur develops a new product.

The entrepreneur almost surely gets richer faster than we get richer, but we all wind up better off. Indeed, there’s a clear relationship between the share of rich people in a society and overall prosperity.

And that’s a good description of what has actually happened in market-oriented nations such as the United States.

Heck, it even happened to some degree in China when there was partial reform.

By contrast, government favoritism is a recipe for inefficiency and stagnation (and since LBJ was an awful president, I like that David used him for the example of corrupt cronyism).

In a column for CapX, Andrew Lilico correctly differentiates between moral inequality and immoral inequality.

The only legitimate questions about the distribution of wealth concern whether it is truly the property of those that possess it, as opposed to having stolen or extorted it. …Wealth is property. If it has been innocently acquired, people should be able to enjoy their property without censure or the (quite incorrect) suggestion that their flourishing causes others harm.

Not only is it incorrect to suggest that one person’s flourishing causes harm to others, it is completely wrong.

As pointed out in the video, Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus calculated that entrepreneurs only capture a tiny fraction (2.2 percent) of the wealth they create for society. That means 97.8 percent for the rest of us.

And other academic scholars have produced similar results.

The bottom line is that the recipe for growth and prosperity is the same recipe for helping the less fortunate.

P.S. As you can see from his Wikipedia page, Professor Nordhaus is not a libertarian or conservative, so it should be clear he wasn’t trying to come up with a number to justify capitalism.

P.P.S. I also recommend my four-part series (see herehere, here, and here) on why we should care about poverty reduction rather than pushing for coerced equality, as well as my two-part series (here and here) on how statist policies produce the immoral type of inequality.

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In this clip from a recent interview with Gunther Fehlinger, I explore the connection between two very important important economic concepts: Convergence and Wagner’s Law.

Before launching into further discussion, let’s nail down two very important definitions.

  • Convergence is the notion that poor countries should grow faster than rich countries and eventually attain a similar level of prosperity.
  • Wagner’s Law is the seemingly paradoxical observation that richer nations tend to have larger fiscal burdens than poorer nations.

These two concepts deserve elaboration because many people either fail to recognize the implications or they draw the wrong conclusions.

For instance, convergence is a sensible theory, but the rate of convergence (or divergence!) is very dependent on the degree to which nations have good policy (or bad policy).

Moreover, Wagner’s Law shows that politicians figure out how to extract more money and fund bigger government once nations become rich, but some people reverse the causality and assert that big government somehow caused nations to become rich.

The key takeaway from these observations, as I explained in the interview, is that poor nations that want convergence need to copy the policies that rich nations had when they became rich (in the interview at about 0:56, I mistakenly said “were rich” rather than “became rich”).

And I’ve written many times to show that the rich nations of the western world made the leap to industrial prosperity in the 1800s and early 1900s – at a time when they had no welfare states and very low fiscal burdens (indeed most of them didn’t have any income taxes during that period).

Which gives me another excuse to re-issue my never-answered challenge: Please show me an example, from any point in world history, of a country became rich after adopting big government.

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I’ve been warning that the United States should not copy Europe’s fiscal policy, largely because living standards are significantly lower in nations with large welfare states.

That’s true if you look at average levels of consumption in different nations, but the most compelling data is the fact that lower-income people in the United States generally enjoy living standards that are equal to or even higher than those for middle-class people in most European countries.

A bigger burden of government is not just a theoretical concern. President Biden has already pushed through a $1.9 trillion spending bill that includes some temporary provisions – such as per-child handouts – that, if made permanent, could add several trillion dollars to the burden of government spending.

And the White House has signaled support for $3 trillion of additional spending for items such as infrastructure, green energy, and other boondoggles.

This doesn’t even count the cost of other schemes, such as the “public option” that would strangle private health insurance and force more people to rely on an already-costly-and-and bankrupt government program.

So what will it mean for America if our medium-sized welfare state morphs into a European-style large welfare state?

The answer to that question is rather unpleasant, at least if some new research from the Congressional Budget Office is any indication. The study, authored by Jaeger Nelson and Kerk Phillips, considers the impact on growth based on six different scenarios (based on how much the spending burden increases and what taxes are increased).

If permanent spending is financed by new or increased taxes, then those taxes influence people’s decisions about how much to work and save. Those decisions then affect how much the economy produces and businesses invest and, ultimately, how much people can consume. Different types of taxes have different economic effects. Taxes on labor income reduce after-tax wages, so they reduce the return on each additional hour worked. …Higher taxes on capital income, such as dividends and capital gains, lower the average after-tax rate of return on private wealth holdings (or the return on investment), which reduces the incentive to save and invest and leads to reductions in saving, investment, and the capital stock. …we compare the effects of raising additional revenues through three illustrative tax policies: a flat tax on labor income, a flat tax on all income (including both labor and capital income), and a progressive tax on all income. The additional revenues generated by these policies are in addition to the revenues raised by taxes that already exist and are used to finance two specific increases in government spending. The two increases in government spending are set to 5 percent and 10 percent of GDP in 2020.

Here are some of the key results, as illustrated by the chart.

The least-worst result (the blue line) is a decline in GDP of about 3 percent, and that happens if the spending burden expand by 5-percentage points of GDP and is financed by a flat tax.

The worst-worst result (dashed red line) is a staggering decline in GDP of about 10 percent, and that happens if the spending burden climbs by 10-percentage points and is financed by a progressive tax.

Here’s some additional analysis, including a description of why progressive taxes impose the most damage.

This paper shows that flat labor and flat income tax policies have similar effects on output; labor taxes reduce the labor supply more, and income taxes reduce the capital stock more. For all three policies, the decline in income contracts the tax base considerably over time. As a result, to continuously generate enough revenues to finance the increase in government spending in each year, tax rates must steadily increase over time to account for the decline in the tax base. Moreover, labor and capital taxes put upward pressure on interest rates by reducing the capital-to-labor ratio over time… The largest declines in economic activity among the financing methods considered occur with the progressive tax on all income. Those declines occur because high-productivity workers reduce their hours worked and because higher taxes on asset income reduce the incentive to save and invest relatively more than under the two flat taxes.

There’s lots of additional information in the study, but I definitely want to draw attention to Table 4 because it shows that lower-income people will suffer big reductions in living standards if there’s an increase in the burden of government spending (circled in red).

What makes these results especially remarkable is that the authors only look at the damage caused by higher taxes.

Yet we know from other research that the economy also will suffer because of the higher spending burden. This is because of the various ways that growth is reduced when resources are diverted from the productive sector to the government.

For background, here’s a video on the theoretical reasons why government spending hinders growth.

And here’s a video with some of the scholarly evidence.

P.S. The CBO study also points out that financing new spending with a value-added tax wouldn’t avert economic damage.

…by reducing the cost of time spent not working for pay relative to other goods, a consumption tax could reduce hours worked through a channel like that of a tax on labor.

For what it’s worth, even the pro-tax International Monetary Fund agrees with this observation.

P.P.S. It’s worth noting that the CBO study also shows that young people will suffer much more than older people.

…older cohorts, on average, experience smaller declines in lifetime consumption than younger cohorts

Which raises an interesting question of why millennials and Gen-Zers don’t appreciate capitalism and instead are sympathetic to the dirigiste ideology that will make their lives more difficult.

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As part of a video debate last year (where I also discussed wealth taxation, poverty reduction, and the inadvisability of tax increases), I pontificated on the negative economic impact of class-warfare taxation.

To elaborate, I’m trying to help people understand why it is a mistake to impose class-warfare taxes on high-income taxpayers.

Back in 2019, I shared data from the Internal Revenue Service confirming that rich taxpayers get the vast majority of their income from business activity and investments.

And since it’s comparatively easy to control the timing, level, and composition of that income, class-warfare taxes generally backfire.

Heck, well-to-do taxpayers can simply shift all their investments into tax-free municipal bonds (that’s bad for the rest of us, by the way, since it’s better for growth if they invest in private businesses rather than buying bonds from state and local governments).

Or, they can simply buy growth stocks rather than dividend stocks because politicians (thankfully) haven’t figured out how to tax unrealized capital gains.

Some of my left-leaning readers probably think that my analysis can be ignored or dismissed because I’m a curmudgeonly libertarian.

But I’m simply recycling conventional economic thinking on these issues.

And to confirm that point, let’s review a study on taxes and growth that the International Monetary Fund published last December. Written by Khaled Abdel-Kader and Ruud de Mooij, there are passages that sound like they could have been written by yours truly.

Such as the observation that taxes hinder prosperity by reducing economic output (what economist refer to as deadweight loss).

…public finance…theories teach us some important lessons about efficient tax design. By transferring resources from the private to the public sector, taxes inescapably impose a loss on society that goes beyond the revenue generated. …deadweight loss (or excess burden) is what determines a tax distortion. Efficient tax design aims to minimize the total deadweight loss of taxes. The size of this loss depends on two main factors. First, losses are bigger the more responsive the tax base is to taxation. Second, the loss increases more than proportionately with the tax rate: adding a distortion to an already high tax rate is more harmful than adding it to a low tax rate. Two prescriptions for efficient tax policy follow: (i) it is efficient to impose taxes at a higher rate if things are in inelastic demand or supply; and (ii) it is best to tax as many things as possible to keep rates low. …empirical studies on the growth impact of taxes…generally find that income taxes are more distortive for economic growth than taxes on consumption.

There are several parts of the above passage that deserve extra attention, such as the observation about elasticity (similar to the point I made in the video about why higher tax rates on upper-income taxpayers are so destructive).

But the most important thing to understand is what the authors wrote about how “the [deadweight] loss increases more than proportionately with the tax rate.”

In other words, it’s more damaging to increase top tax rates.

This observation, which is almost certainly universally recognized in the economics profession, tells us why class-warfare taxes do the most economic damage, on a per-dollar-collected basis.

The IMF study also has worthwhile observations on different types of taxes, such as why it’s a good idea to have low income tax rates on people.

Optimal tax theory emphasizes the trade-off between equity and efficiency. …This requires balancing the revenue gain from a higher marginal top PIT rate at the initial base against the revenue loss induced by behavioral responses that a higher tax rate would induce—such as reduced labor effort, avoidance or evasion—measured by the elasticity of taxable income. …high marginal rates cause other adverse economic effects, e.g. on innovation and entrepreneurship, and thus create larger economic costs than is sometimes assumed.

Very similar to what I’ve written.

And low income tax rates on companies.

Capital income—interest, dividends and capital gains—is used for future consumption so that taxes on it correspond to a differentiated consumption tax on present versus future consumption—one that compounds if the time horizon expands. Prudent people who prefer to postpone consumption to later in life (or transfer it to their heirs) will thus be taxed more than those who do not, even though they have the same life-time earnings. This violates horizontal equity principles. Moreover, it causes a distortion by encouraging individuals to substitute future with current consumption, i.e. they reduce savings. The tax is therefore also inefficient. A classical result, formalized by Chamley (1986) and Judd (1985), is that the optimal tax on capital is zero.

Once again, very similar to what I’ve written.

Indeed, the study even asks whether there should be a corporate income tax when the same income already is subject to dividend taxation when distributed to shareholders.

…capital income taxes can be levied directly on the people that ultimately receive that income, i.e. shareholders and creditors. So: why is there a need for a CIT? It is hard to justify a CIT on efficiency grounds. As explained before, the incidence of the CIT in a small open economy falls largely on workers, not on the firm or its shareholders. Since it is more efficient to tax labor directly than indirectly, the optimal CIT is found to be zero. …CIT systems…in most countries…create two major economic distortions. First, by raising the cost of capital on equity they distort investment decisions. This hurts economic growth and adversely affects efficiency. Second, by differentiating between debt and equity, they induce a bias toward debt finance. This not only creates an additional direct welfare loss, but also threatens financial stability. Both distortions can be eliminated by…cash-flow taxes, which allow for full expensing of investment instead of deductions for tax depreciation

Also similar to what I’ve written.

And I like the fact that the study makes very sensible points about why there should not be a pro-debt bias in tax codes and why there should be “expensing” of business investment costs.

I’ll close by noting that the IMF study is not a libertarian document.

The authors are simply describing the economic costs of taxation and acknowledging the tradeoffs that exist when politicians impose various types of taxes (and the rates at which those taxes are imposed).

But that doesn’t mean the IMF is arguing for low taxes.

There are plenty of sections that make the (awful) argument that it’s okay to impose higher tax rates and sacrifice growth in order to achieve more equality.

And there are also sections that regurgitate the IMF’s anti-empirical argument that higher taxes can be good for growth if politicians wisely allocate the money so it is spent on genuine public goods.

Politicians doing what’s best for their countries rather than what’s best for themselves? Yeah, good luck with that.

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There are several false narratives about economic history, involving topics ranging from the recent financial crisis to 19th-century sweatshops.

But probably the biggest falsehood, as explained in this video by Prof. Lee Ohanian, is the notion that big government saved us from the Great Depression.

The only shortcoming of Ohanian’s video is that he’s analyzing just one of President Roosevelt’s mistakes.

Yes, it is very important to explain why FDR’s corporatism was profoundly misguided, but we also should recognize that he had terrible fiscal policy as well.

Roosevelt had two competing camps of advisers on the budget, one of which wanted to borrow and spend, while the other wanted to tax and spend. Sadly, both groups enjoyed plenty of victories.

With so many policy mistakes, we shouldn’t be surprised that the economy remained mired in a depression for an entire decade.

What’s tragic is that most of that suffering could have been avoided if FDR and his appointees simply remembered how President Harding a dozen years earlier had cut taxes and spending to rescue the economy from a deep downturn.

Let’s look at some additional analysis.

Writing for CapX, Tim Worstall explains how FDR’s blundering made things worse, especially compared to what happened in the United Kingdom.

…what caused the Great Depression was a series of bad political choices… The British…government cut spending and things turned out rather better than that in the US. …the much worse American experience was a direct result of the huge expansion of government. Far from saving the US economy, Roosevelt’s various interventions actually prolonged the agony. …The Depression was over in the UK by 1934. …the American disaster toiled on rather longer. So, what were the big differences? …the UK cut state spending… FDR boosted the role of the federal government in many ways. …the National Recovery Administration, which was a disastrous attempt at managing prices. …the imposition of cartels upon both business and agriculture. This suite of ill-advised measures delayed the recovery.

The only good news is that we didn’t get a resuscitation of those policies after World War II, which meant the economy had a chance to finally recover.

So what’s the moral of the story?

As Larry Reed wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education, the Great Depression was caused by a series of foolish interventions by politicians in Washington, and we need to remember that lesson so we don’t repeat the mistakes of history.

The history of the Great Crash and subsequent Depression provides a sad litany of policy blunders in Washington. Altogether, they needlessly caused and prolonged the pain; roller coaster monetary policy, sky-high tariff hikes, massive tax increases, government-supervised destruction of foodstuffs, gold seizures, price-fixing regulations, soaring deficits and debt, special favors to organized labor that stifled investment and boosted unemployment. …myths and misconceptions about our most calamitous economic episode abound. Fortunately, recent scholarship is slowly changing that. The simplistic, error-filled assumption that free markets failed and government rescued us—once conventional “wisdom”—no longer gets by unquestioned.

For further information on the Great Depression and bad government policy, you can watch other videos here and here.

P.S. Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell both have written on the issue as well.

P.P.S. With regards to economic policy, FDR was an awful president. And he would have been even worse had he succeeded in pushing through his plan for a 100 percent top tax rate and his proposal for a so-called economic bill of rights.

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Over the years, I’ve shared many amusing memes and cartoons about minimum wage laws.

But this one, based on a skit from The Eric Andre Show, may be the best of all.

Not because it’s making a different point than the others, but because what has just happened in Southern California.

Local politicians in a couple of cities recently mandated higher wages (labeled “hero pay”) for workers in grocery stores.

The immediate consequences of that legislation provide a clear-cut example of why it is so foolish for politicians to mandate levels of pay that make it unprofitable to operate a business.

Let’s look at a couple of news reports.

We’ll start with a story from the local CBS affiliate in Los Angeles. Here are some excerpts.

Kroger is closing three more of its stores in Los Angeles after the city passed a “hero pay” ordinance mandating a $5 pay bump for grocery and pharmacy workers. …“It’s never our desire to close a store, but when you factor in the increased costs of…an extra pay mandate that will cost nearly $20 million over the next 120 days, it becomes impossible to operate these three stores,” Kroger said in a statement.

The same thing is happening in nearby Long Beach.

Ralphs and Food 4 Less recently announced that they will be closing two…stores in Long Beach after Mayor Robert Garcia approved a city ordinance that would impose a $4 “hero pay” salary boost… “As a result of the City of Long Beach’s decision to pass an ordinance mandating Extra Pay for grocery workers, we have made the difficult decision to permanently close long-struggling store locations in Long Beach,” said a company spokesperson. …The permanent closures will happen on April 17 for long-struggling locations and will impact nearly 200 employees between the two locations.

What happened in Los Angeles and Long Beach is obviously a lesson in economics.

But it’s also a lesson in politics.

I’m guessing that most of the local politicians knew that they would be throwing many people into the unemployment line when they mandated “hero pay,” but they simply didn’t care.

What mattered to them is that they got headlines for “caring” when they enacted the legislation. They don’t care about the unintended (but very predictable) consequences.

Which is yet another reason we should have a very low opinion of politicians.

P.S. If you want more memes and cartoons about the minimum wage, click here, here, here, here, and here.

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Two years ago, I shared a study from three scholars that investigated whether membership in the European Union (EU) is associated with better economic performance.

Before reading that study, I assumed that EU membership was bad news for rich countries with decent economic policy (hence my support for Brexit), but I figured it was a good idea for poor countries with not-so-good policy.

I may have been wrong about the latter. The authors found that “EU membership has no impact on economic growth” and that “EU entry seems to have reduced economic growth.”

Ouch.

But I’m always interested in seeing new research on this topic.

So I was delighted to read a new report published by the European Liberal Forum.* Written by Constantinos Saravakos, Emmanuel Schizas, Mara Vidali, Angela De Martiis, and Giorgio Vernoni, it also seeks to ascertain if there is a link between EU membership and economic liberty.

…this publication seeks to examine whether a trajectory towards EU membership is a driver for more economic freedom. The key research question is if European Union economic policies promote economic freedom. The answer in this question is essential…because an economic environment based on market economy has a positive relationship with several prosperity outcomes. …Taking into account the huge EU enlargement that took place since 2004, when 13 countries have accessed the Union, and the on process enlargement with several formal or informal candidates, the analysis focuses on whether the structural reforms required for a country to become a member of EU contribute to economic freedom, covering the period from 2000 to 2017. …our research considers the relationship between a country’s Economic Freedom of the World index score (and sub-index scores) and its progress along the EU accession process.

Contrary to the study I wrote about two years ago, they find that countries have benefited from membership.

…as a country approaches EU membership status, then economic freedom, as proxied by the proximity to the EFW frontier, increases by at least 0.2, and this effect is associated with the process of accession…the main channel by which EU accession might contribute positively to a candidate or member state’s economic freedom is by boosting the freedom to trade… The present study provides empirical evidence of a link between the EU accession process and the aim of promoting economic freedom.

Here’s a chart from the report, which certainly suggests that something good is happening in the European Union.

Economic freedom, on average, has increased for the 28 nations of the EU since 2000 (based on a 1-10 scale).**

But when I looked at that chart, I wondered what we were really seeing.

Most notably, I was curious what we would find if we looked at the the nations of Western Europe, the ones that used to be known as the EU-15 before the bloc was enlarged (13 new countries have joined this century, mostly from Eastern Europe).**

So I went to the same source, Economic Freedom of the World, to measure what’s happened in those countries. Lo and behold, the average level of economic liberty has declined (which didn’t surprise me since I found something similar when I crunched some data back in 2016).

This doesn’t mean we should necessarily conclude that EU membership is bad for prosperity, but I’m not optimistic.

When I talk to pro-EU friends, here are some questions I ask:

  • Would Eastern European nations have liberalized their economies without becoming part of the EU?
  • Since Western European nations wield most of the power inside the EU, is it worrisome that they are becoming more statist in their orientation?
  • What are the implications for EU nations of demographic change (aging populations and falling birthrates)?
  • Will the EU’s nascent transfer union lead to more economic liberalization or less economic liberalization?

The bottom line is that I don’t think there are encouraging answers to these questions. Which is why we can expect that Europe will continue to fall behind the United States (which makes it rather odd that President Biden wants to make the USA more like the EU).

*In Europe, liberal means pro-market “classical liberalism” rather than the entitlement-based American version.

**The United Kingdom has now escaped the EU, but it was part of the bloc during the periods being measured.

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Exactly one month ago, I declared that Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley deserved an award for the “world’s most economically illiterate statement” because of her claim that “poverty is not naturally occurring.”

In reality, poverty has been the norm throughout history. As documented by Professors Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux, it was only the development of capitalism (starting a few hundred years ago in Europe) that enabled humanity to enjoy amazing and unprecedented increases in living standards.

Moreover, Ms. Pressely was trying to argue that redistribution was the proper way to address poverty, and I concluded my column by noting “that part of her statement also is wrong, according to both U.S. data and global data.”

Today, I want to debunk another preposterous assertion.

David Smith of the U.K.-based Guardian wrote a column yesterday claiming that Biden’s so-called stimulus should be celebrated since it marks an end to forty years of Reaganomics.

…he will…be on a mission to restore faith in government. Confidence in it “has been plummeting since the late 60s to what it is now”, Biden noted in his remarks last week. His legislation, called the American Rescue Plan, can correct that with the biggest expansion of the welfare state in decades. …Biden knows better than anyone what that means. When he was born, in 1942, the president was Franklin Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal… When Biden was a student at the University of Delaware, Lyndon Johnson embarked on his project of the “Great Society”… Then came Ronald Reagan and his famous quip: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” …He described Johnson’s “Great Society” as a fundamental wrong turn and set about dismantling it. …This orthodoxy held and dominated the political centre ground. …Biden’s could hardly be more of a polar opposite. …All the more reason to enjoy his victory lap and celebrate that four decades of Reaganism and “trickle down” economics are at an end.

Some of that political analysis is reasonable. FDR’s failed New Deal did expand government, as did LBJ’s failed War on Poverty.

And it’s also true that Reagan challenged their big-government orthodoxy and was somewhat successful in reining in the welfare state (“dismantling it” is a huge exaggeration, however).

But the author’s claim that there were “four decades of Reaganism” is breathtaking nonsense.

  • George H.W. Bush expanded the burden of government.
  • George W. Bush expanded the burden of government.
  • Barack Obama expanded the burden of government.
  • Donald Trump expanded the burden of government.

That’s 24 years of statist policies after Reagan left office.

If Mr. Smith actually knew the subject matter and wanted to write an honest article, he could have made an argument about 16 years of Reaganism because we also benefited from a net reduction in the burden of government during Clinton’s eight years in office.

But the 21st century has been nothing but bad news for proponents of free markets. If you peruse Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll find that America’s level of economic freedom peaked in 2000 with a score of 8.67 (on a 1-10 scale).

Now the score for the United States has dropped to 8.22.

By the way, that’s not catastrophically bad. There’s no immediate risk of America becoming another Greece. And we’ll presumably never turn into Venezuela, no matter how hard Biden tries (it wouldn’t even happen if Vice President Harris took over).

That being said, what we’ve endured over the past two decades definitely is not Reaganism. The “Washington Consensus” is just a distant memory.

P.S. David Smith’s article is an example of sloppy journalism at a left-wing newspaper, but I’ll always have a bit of fondness for the Guardian because of the unintended compliment it bestowed upon me back in 2009.

P.P.S. For younger readers who did not experience the Reagan years, here’s my assessment of his record and here are some videos of some of his iconic remarks (and here’s a bonus video).

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We have decades of real-world experience with Keynesian economics. The results are not pretty.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

  • They were wrong about growth after World War II (and would have been wrong, if they were around at the time, about growth when Harding slashed spending in the early 1920s).
  • They were wrong about Thatcher in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Reagan in the 1980s.
  • They were wrong about Canada in the 1990s.
  • They were wrong after the sequester in 2013.
  • They were wrong about unemployment benefits in 2020.

This story needs to be told, again and again, especially since we’re now going to have another real-world test case thanks to President Biden’s so-called American Rescue Plan.

I just wrote a column on Biden’s proposal for the Foundation for Economic Education, and it is co-authored by Robert O’Quinn, who most recently served as the Chief Economist at the Department of Labor.

We started by pointing out that Biden is basically copying Trump’s big-spending approach, but with a different justification (Keynesianism instead of coronavirus).

Mr. Biden is bringing a new twist to the profligacy. Instead of trying to justify the new spending by saying it is needed to compensate households and businesses for government-mandated lockdowns, he is making the Keynesian argument that the new spending is a way of stimulating the economy. The same approach was used when he was Vice President, of course, but did not yield positive results. …Mr. Biden and his team apparently think the anemic results were a consequence of not spending enough money. Hence, the huge $1.9 trillion price tag for his plan. Will his approach work? …We can learn about economic recovery today by reviewing what happened during the Great Recession earlier this century and what happened at the end of World War II.

We explain the causes of the previous recession and point out that Obama’s so-called stimulus didn’t work.

…the Great Recession…was the result of an unsustainable housing bubble caused by overly accommodative monetary policy from the Federal Reserve and misguided housing policies. …it took years to clean up the mess from the bursting of the housing bubble. Households slowly rebuilt their savings and cleaned up their balance sheets. …Banks had to work out problem loans and rebuild their capital… Obama’s stimulus did not drive that healing process and spending more money would have done little to accelerate it.

And we also point out that the economy recovered very quickly after World War II, even though the Keynesians predicted disaster in the absence of a giant new package such as Truman’s 21-Point Program (his version of FDR’s horrible vision of an entitlement society).

Keynesians feared that demobilization would throw the US economy into a deep depression as federal spending was reduced. Paul Samuelson even wrote in 1943 that a failure to come up with alternative forms of government spending would lead to “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced.” …President Harry Truman proposed “a 21-Point Program for the Reconversion Period” shortly after the war ended. But his plan, which was basically a reprise of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, was largely ignored by Congress. Did the economy collapse, as the Keynesians feared? Hardly. …Spared a repeat of FDR’s interventionism, the economy enjoyed strong growth. One of the big tailwinds for growth is that the forced savings accumulated during the war years allowed consumers to go on a peacetime buying binge.

That last sentence in the above excerpt is key because 2021 is a lot like 1945. Back then, households had lots of money in the bank (wartime rationing and controls meant there wasn’t much to buy), which helped trigger the post-war boom.

Something similar is about to happen, as we explain in the column.

The current economic conditions are somewhat reminiscent of the ones that existed after World War II. The limited ability to spend money during the pandemic has helped boost the personal saving rate…  In aggregate terms, personal saving soared from $1.2 trillion in 2019 to $2.9 trillion in 2020. …pent-up demand funded with more than $1 trillion in excess savings will resuscitate…GDP.

So what does all this mean? Well, the good news is that 2021 is going to be a very good year for the economy. That’s already baked into the cake.

The bad news is that Biden is taking advantage of the current political situation to increase the burden of government spending.

…the economy prospered after World War II despite (or perhaps because of) the failure of Mr. Truman’s 21-point proposal. President Biden’s team is either unaware of this history, or they simply do not care. Perhaps they simply want to take advantage of the current environment to reward key constituencies. Or they may be trying to resuscitate the tattered reputation of Keynesian economics by spending a bunch of money so they can take credit for an economic recovery that is already destined to happen.

Since I gave the good news and bad news, I’ll close with the worse news.

There’s every reason to expect very strong growth in 2021, but Biden’s spending binge means that future growth won’t be as robust

  • Especially since the economy also is saddled with lots of wasteful spending by Bush, Obama, and Trump.
  • And especially if Biden is able to push through his agenda of higher taxes on work, saving, and investment.

The bottom line is that the United States is becoming more like Europe and the economic data tells us that means less prosperity and lower living standards.

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I periodically write about the importance of long-run growth and about the importance of convergence (whether poorer countries are catching up with richer countries, as suggested by theory).

This is because such data, especially over decades, teaches us very important lessons about the policies that are most likely to generate prosperity.

I’m revisiting these issues today because John Cochrane, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former professor of economics at the University of Chicago, recently wrote a column that contains a must-see chart showing how some of the major European nations have been losing ground to the United States over the past several decades.

The main thing to understand is that European nations were catching up to the United States after World War II, which is what one would expect.

But that trend came to a halt about 40 years ago and now these nations are suffering divergence instead of enjoying convergence.

Here’s some of Cochrane’s analysis.

…the US is 54% better off than the UK.. France…50% less than US. …the US is 96% better off than Italy. …And it’s been getting steadily worse. France got almost to the US level in 1980. And then slowly slipped behind. The UK seems to be doing ok, but in fact has lost 5 percentage points since the early 2000s peak. And Italy… Once noticeably better off than the UK, and contending with France, Italy’s GDP per capita is now lower than it was in 2000. GDP per capita is income per capita. The average European is about a third or more worse off than the average American, and it’s getting worse.

What’s most remarkable, as I wrote about back in 2014, is that the gap between the United States and Europe is “getting worse.”

Cochrane wonders if this is evidence against the European Union’s free-trade rules.

This should be profoundly unsettling for economists. Everyone thinks free trade is a good thing. The European union, one big integrated market, was supposed to ignite growth. It did not. The grand failure of the world’s biggest free trade zone really is a striking fact to gnaw on. Sure, other things are not held constant. Perhaps what should have been the world’s biggest free trade zone became the world’s biggest regulatory-stagnation, high-tax, welfare-state disincentive zone. Still, “it would have been even worse” is a hard argument to make.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s “a hard argument to make”. I’ve pointed out – over and over again – that Europe’s reasonably good policies in some areas are more than offset by really bad fiscal policy.

Think of the different types of economic policy as classes for a student. If a kid flunks one class, that’s going to produce a sub-par grade point average even if there was good marks in all the other classes.

That’s what has happened on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Europe is suffering the consequences of a stifling tax burden and an onerous burden of government spending.

Besides, I suspect some of the benefits of free trade inside the European Union are offset by the damage of the E.U.’s protectionist barriers against trade with the rest of the world.

P.S. Some people may wonder why Germany was not included in Cochrane’s chart. I assume that’s because the reunification of West Germany and East Germany about 30 years ago creates a massive discontinuity in the data. For those interested, Germany is slightly better off than France and the U.K., according to the Maddison data, but still lagging well behind the United States.

P.P.S. Speaking of Germany, the divergence between East Germany and West Germany teaches an obvious lesson.

P.P.P.S. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that America started out-performing Europe after Reaganomics was implemented.

P.P.P.P.S One obvious takeaway from Cochrane’s data (though not obvious to President Biden) is that the United States should not be copying Europe. Unless, of course, one wants ordinary Americans to be much poorer.

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The 2021 edition of the Index of Economic Freedom was released today (as I’ve repeatedly stated, it’s my favorite annual publication from the Heritage Foundation).

There are five things that merit attention

1. Hong Kong is no longer in first place. Indeed, it’s no longer even part of the rankings because the authors have determined that Hong Kong no longer has real sovereignty.

So that means Singapore is now the world’s most laissez-faire jurisdiction, followed by New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland.

Here are the top 30 nations.

I assume nobody will be surprised to learn that Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea are the three most economically repressive regimes.

2. Most Nordic nations rank above the United States. I highlighted Denmark’s better economic policy when writing about last year’s Index, but Iceland and Finland also rank ahead of America. And Sweden is just one spot behind the USA. Only Norway, cushioned by oil wealth, trails by a meaningful margin.

The United States has better fiscal policy than these countries, but that variable gets too much attention. In areas such as trade and red tape, the Nordic nations are generally more market oriented.

3. More economic freedom means more national prosperity. I’ve repeatedly made this point, but some people never seem to learn. Nonetheless, I’ll share this graph in hopes that data eventually triumphs over ideology.

4. I’m impressed by Taiwan and surprised by Spain. It’s obviously easy for a nation to improve when it starts with a low score. But it’s not easy to make a big jump if a country starts with a high score. So Taiwan’s appearance on the below list is an additional reason to be impressed by that nation’s pro-market orientation.

And, given my recent criticism of Spain, I’m surprised to see that nation made a big jump. I dug into the details and the improvements are in areas other than fiscal policy.

It’s good news, but not overly impressive, to see improvements by nations that start with very low scores.

5. Donald Trump did not deliver more economic liberty. When I point out Trump’s mixed performance, some people accuse me of being a curmudgeonly libertarian who unrealistically demands perfection.

Well, I am curmudgeonly and I am a libertarian, but I’m not alone in noticing Trump’s shortcomings. As you can see from the Heritage Foundation’s data for the United States, we have less economic liberty now than when Trump took office.

The bottom line is that Trump was no Ronald Reagan. On economic issues, he wasn’t even a Bill Clinton.

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The class-warfare crowd and tax lawyers don’t have a lot in common, but both groups oppose the flat tax. An even stranger unholy alliance involves the War on Drugs, which has the support of both the activists who despise drugs and the criminals who get rich selling drugs in the black market.

Professor Bruce Yandle explains this “bootleggers and baptists” phenomenon.

Professor Yandle, who is at Clemson University, even has a book on this topic, co-authored with Professor Adam Smith of Johnson & Wales University (no relation to has namesake, the author of The Wealth of Nations, at least to my knowledge).

One message of the book is that politicians often have noble-sounding reasons for the things they do, but closer investigation usually reveals that interest groups are the real beneficiaries.

In other words, the phenomenon of bootleggers and baptists is run-of-the-mill government corruption, an example of “public choice” in action.

What’s motivated me to write about this issue is a story from Petaluma, California. As reported by Axios, the city wants to ban new gas stations for the supposed purpose of fighting climate change.

Petaluma, California, has voted to outlaw new gas stations, the first of what climate activists hope will be numerous cities and counties to do so. …Expect more such ordinances, particularly in liberal towns. Grassroots groups are popping up with the mission of spreading this type of ban… “This is not a ban on the existing gas stations, which are providing all the gas currently needed,” Matt Krogh, U.S. oil and gas campaign director for the environmental group Stand.earth, tells Axios. …The city councilor who introduced the measure, D’Lynda Fischer, is quoted as saying: “The goal here is to move away from fossil fuels…” A Seattle-based group called Coltura, which aims to phase out gasoline altogether, is working on the issue locally and nationally. …In the 2020s, this is not the time to be expanding fossil fuel infrastructure,” Woody Hastings, co-coordinator of CONGAS, tells Axios. …He says his group has succeeded in blocking three applications to build new stations in Sonoma.

Given my views of climate activists, I don’t want to say this effort is noble. But I’m sure the average person might say this is a well-meaning crusade.

But let’s take a jaundiced look at what’s really happening. At the risk of being the skunk at a garden party, I’ll state that what’s happening, either in the town of Petaluma or in Sonoma County, will have zero impact on the climate.

But it could have a big impact on the owners of existing gas stations. They now have no reason to worry about new competitors. Which makes their gas stations more valuable and gives them greater leeway to raise prices.

Mr. Hastings, the climate activist quoted in the above excerpt, even acknowledged in the story that a ban would help existing stations.

“The problem with allowing new gas stations is we don’t really need them and they’re putting existing gas stations out of business.”

The bottom line is that consumers will lose because the government is limiting competition.

Which is good news for the bootleggers (the owners of gas stations that already exist) and the baptists (the green activists who feel good because they think they’re saving the planet).

P.S. There are countless examples of bootleggers and baptists working together in Washington.

The moral of the story is that it’s almost always insiders who benefit when politicians do something.

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I repeatedly write about the importance of economic growth, usually citing data about gross domestic product (GDP), which is defined as “a monetary measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced in a specific time period.”

And I frequently use that GDP data when comparing long-run performance for various nations in order to demonstrates that you get more economic output with free markets and limited government.

Critics sometimes respond by arguing that GDP is an abstract measure that doesn’t necessarily capture the actual well-being of people.

I’ve addressed this concern in the past by pointing out that you find the same relationship between prosperity and economic liberty when looking at the OECD’s data on “actual individual consumption.”

But Max Roser of Oxford University recently shared some data (from Our World in Data) that may be even more useful because it shows that GDP is strongly correlated with median daily expenditure.

There are a couple of obvious takeaways from this data, most notably that nations in the top-right portion of the chart have much higher levels of economic liberty that countries in the bottom-left portion.

We also see that the United States does very well compared to most other developed nations, though we shouldn’t be surprised to see that Switzerland does even better.

And I assume the dot in the top-right corner is hyper-free market Singapore.

The moral of the story is that there’s a tried-and-true recipe for growth and prosperity based on free markets and limited government.

For those who doubt that assertion, please identify a country – from anywhere in the world and from any period of history – that became rich with statist policies?

I won’t be holding my breath waiting for an answer.

P.S. One important thing to understand is that the vertical axis in the above chart is based on “median” daily expenditure, which means the spending of the hypothetical person in each nation who is better off than 50 percent of the population and worse off than 50 percent of the population.

The “mean” average, by contrast, is calculated by dividing total expenditure by population.

Both median and mean are legitimate ways of figuring out an average, but median is often viewed as a better way of showing the person in the middle while mean is viewed as a better way of capturing aggregate conditions.

For what it’s worth, the U.S. bubble in the above chart presumably would be even higher if the vertical axis was based on mean rather than median daily expenditure. That’s because of a large number of very successful people with very high expenditure levels in America.

P.P.S. By the way, I should point out that Our World in Data is not a libertarian site or conservative site. Indeed, I suspect the academics who run it lean to the left.

Just consider this bit of editorializing in the site’s discussion about economic growth: “While in the US, for example, most of the income gains went to the richest members of society this is not true of other countries where economic growth was widely shared among all.”

It’s certainly true the rich have enjoyed large income gains in the United States, so there’s nothing technically inaccurate about that gratuitous bit of class warfare.

But people who work closely with economic data surely understand that you don’t just want to focus on how the pie is sliced. You also want to know the size of the pie.

When you look at both types of data, you learn that ordinary Americans are much better off than ordinary people in other nations – which is the opposite of what is implied by the quote.

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I’ve written many times about the spectacularly positive impact of pro-market reforms in Chile.

The shift toward free markets, which began in the mid-1970s, was especially beneficial for the less fortunate (see here, here, and here).

But it’s quite common for critics to assert that Chile is a bad example because many of the reforms were enacted by General Augusto Pinochet, a dictator who seized power in 1973. And some of those critics also attack Milton Friedman for urging Pinochet to liberalize the economy and reduce the burden of government.

Are these critics right?

To answer that question, I very much recommend the following cartoon strip by Peter Bagge. Published by Reason, it accurately depicts the efforts of reformers to get good reforms from a bad government.

It starts in 1973, with a group of Chilean economists, known as the “Chicago Boys,” who wanted free markets.

In 1975, they invited Milton Friedman to help make the case for economic reform.

This 1982 strip shows some of the controversies that materialized.

But by the time we got to the 21st century, everything Friedman said turned out to be true.

Chile had become an “improbable success.”

This cartoon strip is great for two reasons.

  • First, I’ll be able to share it with people who want to delegitimize Chile’s transition to a market-oriented democracy (ranked #14 according to the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World). Simply stated, it was bad that Chile had a dictatorship, but it was good that the dictatorship allowed pro-market reforms (particularly when compared to the alternative of a dictatorship with no reforms). And it was great that Chile became a democracy (a process presumably aided by mass prosperity).
  • Second, we should encourage engagement with distasteful governments. I certainly don’t endorse China’s government or Russia’s government, but I’ve advised government officials from both nations. Heck, I would even give advice to Cuba’s government or North Korea’s government (not that I’m expecting to be asked). My goal is to promote more liberty and it would make me very happy if I could have just a tiny fraction of Friedman’s influence in pursuing that goal.

P.S. Here’s Milton Friedman discussing his role in Chile.

P.P.S. While I disagree, it’s easy to understand why some people try to delegitimize Chile’s reforms by linking them to Pinochet. What baffles me are the folks who try to argue that the reforms were a failure. See, for instance, Prof. Dani Rodrik and the New York Times.

P.P.P.S. Critics also tried to smear Prof. James Buchanan for supporting economic liberalization in Chile.

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While it’s true that every penny in the budget requires money to be diverted from the economy’s productive sector, not all government spending is created equal when considering the impact on growth.

Some types of spending, such as redistribution programs, are doubly harmful to prosperity. The economy is first hurt by the taxes needed to finance the programs, and then the economy is hurt because the programs give people incentives to rely on the government rather than work.

Other types of spending, however, require a cost-benefit analysis.

Consider the case of education. There are costs when politicians take money out of the private sector to finance education, but there are benefits from having an educated population.

That doesn’t tell us how much to spend, of course, and it also overlooks equally important questions such as whether the money will generate better results if used to finance a government monopoly or a choice-based system. But I’m simply making the point that there are costs and benefits.

Now let’s apply this analysis to government-financed research and development, which involves everything from the National Science Foundation to NASA, and from global warming grants to weapons development for the Pentagon.

Proponents argue that these are “public goods,” meaning that they produce economy-wide benefits and can only be handled by government.

But that view seems to be based in large part on faith rather than evidence.

Matt Ridley, the former science editor for the Economist, wrote about this topic for the Wall Street Journal back in 2015. If you only have time to read one article, this might be the best choice.

He starts by explaining that most breakthroughs come from private initiative.

Most technological breakthroughs come from technologists tinkering, not from researchers chasing hypotheses. Heretical as it may sound, “basic science” isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think. …Politicians believe that innovation can be turned on and off like a tap: You start with pure scientific insights, which then get translated into applied science, which in turn become useful technology. So what you must do, as a patriotic legislator, is to ensure that there is a ready supply of money to scientists on the top floor of their ivory towers, and lo and behold, technology will come clanking out of the pipe at the bottom of the tower. …this story…so prevalent in the world of science and politics—that science drives innovation, which drives commerce—is mostly wrong. It misunderstands where innovation comes from. Indeed, it generally gets it backward. …It is no accident that astronomy blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine. …Technological advances are driven by practical men who tinkered until they had better machines; abstract scientific rumination is the last thing they do.

Government funding, by contrast, does not have a good track record.

It follows that there is less need for government to fund science: Industry will do this itself. Having made innovations, it will then pay for research into the principles behind them. Having invented the steam engine, it will pay for thermodynamics. …For more than a half century, it has been an article of faith that science would not get funded if government did not do it, and economic growth would not happen if science did not get funded by the taxpayer. …there is still no empirical demonstration of the need for public funding of research and that the historical record suggests the opposite. After all, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. and Britain made huge contributions to science with negligible public funding, while Germany and France, with hefty public funding, achieved no greater results either in science or in economics. …public funding of research almost certainly crowds out private funding. That is to say, if the government spends money on the wrong kind of science, it tends to stop researchers from working on the right kind of science.

Ridley doesn’t claim there are no benefits. Instead, he makes the more practical point that government R&D has high costs with relatively low benefits.

…the argument for public funding of science rests on a list of the discoveries made with public funds, from the Internet (defense science in the U.S.) to the Higgs boson (particle physics at CERN in Switzerland). But that is highly misleading. Given that government has funded science munificently from its huge tax take, it would be odd if it had not found out something. This tells us nothing about what would have been discovered by alternative funding arrangements. And we can never know what discoveries were not made because government funding crowded out philanthropic and commercial funding.

Ridley’s analysis is backed up by scholarly research.

Here are some excerpts from a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This paper reviews the literature on R&D to provide guidelines for recent efforts to include R&D in the national income accounts. …The overall rate of return to R&D is very large, perhaps 25 percent as a private return and a total of 65 percent for social returns. However, these returns apply only to privately financed R&D in industry. Returns to many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero. …On the basis of the evidence considered, privately financed R&D in industry should be treated as an investment and included in the relevant R&D stock. Returns to R&D are very high, but these high returns accrue only to privately financed R&D. Many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all, and do not belong in investment.

And here are some passages from a 2003 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

…the pace of accumulation of physical and human capital plays a major role in the growth process. Most notably, the estimated impact of increases in human capital (as measured by average years in education) on output suggests high returns to investment in education. The results also point to a marked positive effect of business-sector R&D, while the analysis could find no clear-cut relationship between public R&D activities and growth …there are significant differences in the returns of R&D expenditure across sectors, and the private sector may be better able to channel resources towards high return R&D activities …regressions including separate variables for business-performed R&D and that performed by other institutions (mainly public research institutes) suggest that it is the former that drives the positive association between total R&D intensity and output growth. …The negative results for public R&D are surprising…they suggest publicly-performed R&D crowds out resources that could be alternatively used by the private sector, including private R&D. There is some evidence of this effect in studies.

Terence Kealey’s 2017 testimony to the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also is worth perusing.

…the British Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, like the British Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century, was laissez faire… The US was laissez faire in science between 1776 and 1940, yet by 1890 it had overtaken the UK to become the richest industrialized country in the world. Meanwhile those European countries – including France and the German states – whose governments invested most in science failed to converge on the UK or the US, let alone overtake them. …as shown by the successes of the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, to say nothing of the great industries of Pittsburgh and Detroit – US science, technology and industry flourished. …since 1830 the long-term rates of GDP per capita and TFP (total factor productivity) growth in the US have been steady (with GDP per capita, for example, growing at just under 2% per annum) and the inauguration of the federal funding for science had the following effect on long-term rates of GDP per capita and TFP growth: none.

The good news, relatively speaking, is that the private sector now plays a very dominant role in R&D expenditures.

This was not always the case. This chart, from Iain Murray’s research, shows that government played the dominant role in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Let’s close with two real-world examples of how private R&D drives progress.

First, here are some excerpts from a 2017 column in the Wall Street Journal by Tom Stossel.

He explains that progress in curing and treating diseases comes from the private sector rather than the National Institutes of Health.

The assumption seems to be that the root of all medical innovation is university research, primarily funded by federal grants. This is mistaken. The private economy, not the government, actually discovers and develops most of the insights and products that advance health. The history of medical progress supports this conclusion. …innovation came from physicians in universities and research institutes that were supported by philanthropy. Private industry provided chemicals used in the studies and then manufactured therapies on a mass scale. …Practical innovation requires incremental efforts. But the reviewers of grant applications for medical research are obsessed with theory-based science and novelty for novelty’s sake. …Academic administrators, operating under the delusion that government largess would grow forever, have become entitled. …By contrast, private investment in medicine has kept pace with the aging population and is the principal engine for advancement. More than 80% of new drug approvals originate from work solely performed in private companies. …Great advances in health care have been made, but there are still important challenges, from obesity to dementia. One step toward addressing them would be for Washington to adopt the right approach to medical innovation—and to stop simply throwing money at the current inefficient system.

Second, here’s more of Terence Kealey’s work, in this case some commentary from last year that focuses on space exploration.

…all powered flight started in the private sector, for the Wright brothers were not government‐​funded researchers. …A team of full‐​time government‐​funded researchers, operating out of the Smithsonian Institution, were then also trying to launch heavier‐​than‐​air machines. Even though the Smithsonian team enjoyed a budget that was a hundred times larger than that of the Wrights, its prototypes always crashed. Airplanes are but one of the many gifts that private research and development has bestowed on humanity. As are space rockets. The great space‐​rocket pioneer was Robert “Moonie” Goddard (1882–1945), a professor at Clark College in Massachusetts. Funded with $100,000 from the Guggenheims and $10,000 from the Hodgkins Fund, the projects that resulted in his achievements were extraordinary: By 1925 he had created the first liquid‐​fueled rocket. By 1932 he had developed a gyro stabilizer… Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX,…doing something — namely, putting humans into orbit — that previously had been achieved only by governments. NASA could now be seen as only a temporary interruption of a process that had started in the private sector. …If there is a science that proves the resilience of the private sector, it is space science, including, of course, astronomy. Time again, what at the time was the largest optical telescope in the world was privately funded… Radio astronomy, moreover, was actually born in the private sector, when Karl Jansky of Bell Labs discovered in 1931 that stars emitted radio waves. Grote Reber, a radio engineer, built the first radio telescope, a parabolic dish reflector in his backyard in Chicago in 1937.

The purpose of this column isn’t to argue that there shouldn’t be any government-funded research.

Indeed, because there’s at least some hope of that such spending generates benefits, I prefer R&D spending over almost all other types of spending (it’s better than redistribution outlays, and also better than money that goes for the Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development, etc).

But “better than” other types of government spending is not the same as “better than” leaving the money in the economy’s productive sector.

The bottom line is that there simply isn’t any evidence that government-financed R&D generally passes the cost-benefit test described at the start of the column.

Which means that we should be very skeptical when politicians and interest groups plead for more funding (needless to say, evidence tells us we should be skeptical of any requests for bigger government, not just those for more R&D spending).

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I have mixed feelings about China’s economic policies.

During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, China was horrifically impoverished because of socialist policies. According to the Maddison database, the country was actually poorer under communism than it was 1,000 years ago.

But there was then a bit of economic liberalization starting in 1979. As a result, there’s been a significant increase in living standards and a huge reduction in poverty.

That’s the good news. And I sometimes use China’s post-1979 growth as an example of how even a modest bit of pro-market reform can generate positive results.

The bad news, though, is that China is still a relatively poor nation. Living standards are not only far below American levels, but per-capita economic output is also much lower than the levels in other East Asian nations.

Why hasn’t China caught up?

In part, it takes time for poorer nations to economically converge with richer nations.

But the bigger problem is that convergence is not going to happen unless China engages in a lot more economic reform.

According to the most-recent edition of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, China is in the bottom quartile, ranked #124 out of 162 nations.

If you look at the the details of China’s score, you’ll notice that it does poorly in all areas. But the nation’s lowest score is for fiscal policy (“size of government”).

So if the goal is to help China converge, the obvious place to start is by shrinking the size and scope of government.

But not according to the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund.

In a recent report, the IMF actually advised China to move fiscal policy even further to the left.

I’m not joking. Here are the relevant excerpts.

A combination of a permanent strengthening of the social safety net with reforms to broaden the tax base and increase progressivity would provide effective household support. This would include: Expanding significantly the coverage of unemployment insurance… These efforts would be more effective if complemented with hiring subsidies and programs. …there remains ample scope to further increase transfers… Tax reforms could help improve the progressivity of the tax system as well as meet additional financing needs to permanently expand the social safety net.

This is so misguided, I’m at a loss for words.

But fortunately, I don’t need to be locquacious because Mihai Macovei already wrote an excellent article, critiquing the IMF’s statist approach, for the Mises Institute.

The IMF argues…that a “reliable and effective social safety system” and a “reduction of the high household savings rate” would rebalance and make “resilient” China’s growth model. But why would high saving and low consumption impede sustainable growth? Both sound economic theory and historic experience refute the mainstream’s claim that China needs a big welfare state like those of modern Western economies in order to get richer. …China’s social safety nets are much less generous than in advanced economies, in particular in terms of unemployment benefits and pension income… The fact that China has not built a highly redistributive welfare system like in most advanced economies is illustrated primarily by the very limited role played by the personal income tax (PIT) in income redistribution. …Only people in the top income quintile are effectively paying an income tax… As a result, the Chinese budget collects only 1.2 percent of GDP from PIT, compared to more than 10 percent of GDP in the US. …All this prompts the IMF…to call China’s taxation system “regressive” and to call for more progressive income taxation and redistribution. …In reality, China’s lighter taxation system reduces less people’s incentives to work and save compared to other economies. At the same time, less welfare redistribution ensures higher workforce participation and less waste relative to the oversized and increasingly unsustainable social safety nets in modern advanced economies. …the mainstream criticism of China’s high savings propensity, lean welfare system, and reduced progressivity of taxation seems utterly misplaced.

Mihai is obviously very polite. I would use all sorts of bad words to describe the IMF’s recommendations, but he simply observes that the bureaucracy’s approach is “utterly misplaced.”

To be fair, not everything in the report is nonsense. The IMF is correctly skeptical of China’s industrial policy, and the bureaucrats also understand that protectionism is economically foolish.

But they have a blind spot on fiscal policy, perhaps because IMF bureaucrats get lavish, tax-free salaries and thus have no way of understanding the real-world impact of punitive laws.

Though at least you can give the IMF credit for consistency. The bureaucrats also pushed for higher taxes and bigger government in China in 2015 and 2018.

As you might expect, I take the opposite approach and always urge pro-market reforms for the country.

P.S. Since we’re discussing China, here’s an amazing example of media bias.

P.P.S. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is another international bureaucracy advocating for bad fiscal policy in China.

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When I did my final assessment of Trump’s economic record, I gave him credit for cutting red tape in some areas, but also noted that he increased government intervention in other areas.

…there were some very positive moves on regulation, but they were partly offset by areas where Trump increased intervention (coal subsidies, property rights, Fannie/Freddie, and international tax rules, for instance).

I did give him credit, on net, for moving regulatory policy in the right direction. In other words, the good things he did regarding red tape outweighed the bad things.

But that’s a judgement call, in part because it’s rather difficult to measure the myriad forms of regulation from dozens of different bureaucracies, but also because there’s no agreement on how to measure success (is it a victory, for instance, to reduce the rate of increase in red tape?).

To see how this is challenging, let’s see what various experts wrote about Trump’s regulatory track record.

A new study, authored by Professors Cary Coglianese, Natasha Sarin, and Stuart Shapiro, pours cold water on Trump’s claim that he successfully reduced economic intervention.

Both the extent and impact of the Administration’s efforts to eliminate regulation are considerably less substantial than President Trump and his supporters have claimed. …We recognize that the Trump Administration has repealed or modified a series of agency regulations adopted under the Obama Administration, and even that the Administration has adopted a smaller number of new regulations deemed significant than other recent administrations. Yet overall the reality of regulatory elimination is rather unremarkable… The Administration has accomplished markedly little compared to what it has claimed. … in measuring levels of regulatory activity,researchers rely on a variety of sources of data, including overall pages in the Federal Register and the CFR,the incidence of new rules published in the Federal Register,and the number of actions listed in the semi-annual regulatory agenda. …The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is the authoritative source of all existing regulatory requirements on the books. …Growth continued in the Obama Administration to 185,053 pages in 2016. If President Trump’s claim to have eliminated 25,000 pages were correct, we would expect to see no more than160,000 pages in the CFR by now. But, quite to the contrary, the count as of the end of 2019 was185,984 pages—actually a somewhat greater number of pages, not fewer.

Here’s Figure 1 from the paper, which does confirm that there was not a 25,000-page reduction in red tape.

Though if you focus on the last couple of years, it is obvious that the rate of increase slowed significantly. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either a victory or a smaller defeat.

The authors do acknowledge that the number of pages isn’t even the right way to measure regulatory burden.

So they then examine the claim that the Trump Administration had more initiatives to reduce rather than increase red tape.

A count of pages in the CFR is only an indirect proxy for regulatory obligations. …Another way to look at what the Trump Administration has done by way of deregulation would be to look not at pages but at the number of actual rules. …Although the President and his supporters have claimed various levels of deregulatory activity—from 7 to 22 rules removed for every new rule added—these claims are false or misleading. …The lists overcount deregulatory actions by including withdrawals of proposals that were never finalized, delays in effective dates which do not eliminate regulations, non-regulatory actions such as the repeal of guidance documents, and even proposed deregulatory actions rather than completed ones. In addition, when comparing deregulatory actions to regulatory ones, the White House only counts new regulations designated as “significant,” while they count deregulatory actions of any magnitude or level of significance… rather than there being more deregulatory actions than other actions, as the Trump Administration’s claims have implied, there was, in fact, just the opposite. Overall about three completed actions in the regulatory agenda appear for every action designated as deregulatory.

The bottom line, based on their assessment, is that Trump didn’t accomplish much, particularly when compared to what happened under Carter and Clinton.

…in terms of“dramatic regulatory relief,” nothing the Trump Administration has done compares to the deregulation of the airlines, rail, and truck transportation that was executed by the Carter Administration in the late 1970s. Prior to that time, these major sectors of the economy—along with others, such as natural gas and telecommunications—were subject to regulations of prices and outputs—an inefficient form of regulation that advantaged incumbent firms but at the expense of consumers. President Carter championed major deregulatory initiatives that loosened the government restrictions on the air, rail, and transport sectors.Retrospective analysis indicates that the deregulation of these industries resulted in $70 billion in annual consumer benefits. …the evidence does not support the Trump Administration’s claims to have engaged in a dramatic scaling back of government regulation. More pages were removed from the CFR in the Clinton Administration than the Trump Administration. A more substantial unleashing of market forces occurred from the deregulatory changes made in the Carter Administration. And the Trump Administration has done at least as much regulating as it has deregulating.

For what it’s worth, Clinton was much more market oriented than most people realize. And Carter, while misguided in some areas, did a very good job on regulation.

So it’s not necessarily a knock on Trump to say he fell short of those two presidents.

Now let’s look at a pro-Trump perspective.

Professor Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago early last year offered an upbeat assessment of the former president’s performance in tackling regulations.

In just three years the administration has reversed hundreds of regulations, many of which drone on for hundreds of pages. …Many of the regulations reversed had been written and implemented at the behest of special interests, including large banks, trial lawyers, major health insurance companies, big tech companies, labor unions, and foreign drug manufacturers. …the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA)…dedicated a great deal of manpower preparing a comprehensive and rigorous assessment of deregulation since 2017. That report, released in June, concluded that the past three years of deregulation is comparable to, and probably exceeds, any deregulatory episode in modern U.S. history. …the CEA report estimates that over the next five to 10 years, the deregulatory efforts of the Trump administration will increase annual real incomes in the United States by $3,100 per household.

I wrote about the above-mentioned report from the CEA in the summer of 2019. The CEA’s goal was to present Trump’s policies favorably, so I certainly don’t object to some skepticism from outsiders, but I also noted that, “the underlying assumptions aren’t overly aggressive” and “even modest improvements in growth lead to meaningful income gains over time.”

In a column for the Hill, James Broughel of the Mercatus Center analyzed Trump’s track record and concluded that some good things happened.

…the president issued Executive Order 13,771 soon after taking office. Its “2 for 1” requirement received the most attention: Two regulations must be identified for elimination each time a new one is put forward. However, perhaps more important is the “regulatory budget” it set up, which essentially set a cap on new regulatory costs executive branch agencies can impose. …A look at the data suggests the cap is largely working. On Jan. 20, 2017 — Trump’s inauguration day — there were 1,079,601 regulatory restrictions on the books. By Dec. 6, 2019, that number stood at 1,077,822. While the code has not declined substantially by this measure — and the administration should acknowledge that aggregate cuts to-date have been modest — it’s rare to see a code fail to grow across an entire presidential term.

Incidentally, the Mercatus measure of “regulatory restrictions” almost certainly is better than other measures of red tape, so it’s disappointing that Coglianese, Sarin, and Shapiro failed to include it in their analysis.

But if we’re simply looking at the volume of “significant rules,” here’s a tweet from James Pethokoukis showing that the increase in red tape dramatically slowed once Trump took over.

Philip Wallach of the R Street Institute examined Trump’s track record on red tape in an article for National Review in late 2019 and he thought the glass was half empty rather than half full.

Regulation became one area where conservatives wary of Trump allowed themselves high hopes. Trump’s experiences as a developer left him with a bone-deep skepticism of regulations. …There have been some real bright spots for deregulators. Many of the Obama administration’s aggressive and legally dubious environmental rules have been stalled or rolled back, including the Waters of the United States rule, Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for tailpipe emissions, and the Clean Power Plan, which regulated greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants. The Endangered Species Act will be interpreted so as to make it less burdensome. Promises to scrap Obamacare may have gone unfulfilled, but the administration has quietly and constructively made the program more flexible for states and individuals. …the Trump administration…to an unprecedented degree…has…issu[ed] far fewer new regulations than any of its predecessors.

As you can see, it’s important to define success. Is it a victory to have “far fewer new regulations”?

Or, as you can see in the following excerpt from Wallach’s article, is it a victory to cut red tape by less than Obama increased it?

These triumphs notwithstanding, three years in, hopes of a thoroughgoing overhaul have been dashed. …hitting the pause button, however unusual, does not a revolution make. The hoped-for transformation of the administrative state is nowhere to be found. …In 2018, the administration sought to show its relative merit by noting that, through its first two years, the Obama administration had imposed $245 billion in regulatory costs. The Trump administration’s negative $33 billion in costs imposed at that point certainly was a lot less than $245 billion. But the comparison cuts harder in the other direction: The administration is admitting that it is coming nowhere close to reversing the costs imposed even by the Obama administration — let alone the decades of regulatory burdens built up previously. …the administration’s math allows it to take credit for deregulatory policies as soon as they are promulgated, without paying any attention to whether they are carried through. …the administrative state has been more discomfited than deconstructed by the Trump administration.

Last but not least, former Obama official Cass Sunstein opined for Bloomberg back in 2018 that Trump’s main achievement was to slow the tide of new regulations.

Is President Donald Trump dismantling the regulatory state? Not close. …let’s take a broader perspective. Under George W. Bush, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs approved about 2,500 final regulations. Under Barack Obama, it approved about 2,100 final regulations. …By comparison, the Trump administration has repealed … dozens of finalized regulations. …about 2 percent of the number of regulations finalized over the past 16 years. …Much more fundamentally, he’s substantially slowed the flow of new ones. …From Bush’s inauguration to Sept. 1, 2002, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs approved about 400 proposed regulations and about 500 final regulations. From Obama’s inauguration to Sept. 1, 2010, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs approved about 270 proposed regulations and about 470 final regulations. …the Bush and Obama administrations look pretty similar… The Trump administration is a big outlier. From Trump’s inauguration to the present, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs approved about 170 proposed regulations and about 160 final regulations. That’s a major reduction.

So what’s my two cents?

The obvious conclusion is that the Trump Administration did some good things to ease the nation’s regulatory burden, but there was no major paradigm shift.

The United States had a lot of red tape when Trump took office and it had a lot of red tape when Trump left office, though he definitely slowed the rate of increase.

But a slower rate of increase is still not good news, as illustrated by the fact that the Fraser Institute calculates that America’s score on red tape has declined slightly since 2016.

Indeed, the overall score for economic liberty in the United States has declined slightly since Obama left office, which is evidence for my argument that Trump delivered an incoherent mix of good policies (taxes, for instance) and bad policies (trade, for instance).

P.S. Trump’s Jekyll-Hyde record on economic policy is one of the reasons why I prefer Reaganism over Trumpism. The establishment doesn’t like either of those options, but I very much prefer the one that unambiguously reduces the size and scope of government.

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Two years ago, I explained that socialism is an economic failure, regardless of how it is defined.

In today’s follow-up column, let’s start with an excellent video from John Stossel.

Before addressing the three myths mentioned in the video, it’s worth noting that there’s a technical definition of socialism based on policies such as government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls, and a casual definition of socialism based on policies such as punitive tax rateswelfare state, and intervention.

I don’t like any of those policies, but they are not identical.

That’s why I came up with this flowchart to help illustrate the different strains of leftism (just as, on the other side of the spectrum, Trumpism is not the same as Reaganism is not the same as libertarianism).

Now that we’ve covered definitions, let’s dig into Stossel’s video. He makes three main points.

  1. Socialist policies don’t work any better if imposed by governments that are democratically elected. Simply stated, big government doesn’t magically have good consequences simply because a politician received 51 percent of the vote in an election.
  2. Scandinavian nations are not socialist. I’ve addressed this issue several times and noted that countries such as Sweden and Denmark have costly welfare states, but they are based on private property and rely on private markets to allocate resources.
  3. Socialism has a lot in common with fascism. Stossel could have pointed out that Hitler was the head of the National Socialist Workers Party, but he focused on the less inflammatory argument that socialism and fascism both rely on government control of the economy.

By the way, Stossel also narrated an earlier video on this same topic that addressed two other topics.

First, he countered the argument that we can’t learn anything from the failure of nations such as the Soviet Union and Cuba because they did not have not “real socialism.” My two cents on that topic is to challenge socialists (or anyone else on the left) to answer this question.

Second, he addressed the specific argument that Venezuela can’t teach us anything because its collapse has nothing to do with socialism. The New York Times may want people to think Venezuela’s failure is due to factors such as low oil prices, but the real reason is that economic liberty has been extinguished.

The bottom line is that socialism doesn’t work. Regardless of how it’s defined, it’s both immoral and a recipe for economic decline.

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I repeatedly write about inequality, largely in hopes of helping people, especially my left-leaning friends, understand that we should instead focus on other issues, such as economic opportunity and poverty reduction. In other words, let’s try to help the less fortunate rather than tear down successful people

I specifically try to convince them that they shouldn’t be bothered if someone gets rich (assuming wealth is being earned rather than the result of handouts, bailouts, and subsidies from politicians). What matters is “growing the pie” so all of us have a chance to enjoy more prosperity.

But what if someone gets rich because of good luck? In other words, instead of becoming wealthy because of hard work, intelligence, or entrepreneurship, what if someone is simply the beneficiary of being attractive? Or being tall?

As captured by this tweet from Rob Henderson, this is not mere speculation.

I actually referenced Prof. Mankiw’s work when writing about this issue back in 2010.

And I periodically come across new research on the economic advantages enjoyed by attractive folks.

Highly attractive women’s salaries are one-tenth higher than the average even at similar education and competence levels, a low attractivity means a loss of 4 percent, according to a study presented by sociologist Petra Anyzova at a workshop based on a job market research project today. …Anyzova said that the results are similar to the findings of other studies and the trend suggests that men are disadvantaged if they display more feminine traits and women are disadvantages if they display more masculine traits.In the case of men, the impact of physical attractiveness on being able to secure a higher socio-economic status is significant.

And here’s another study Henderson tweeted about.

So what are the policy implications of this research? And the other research that I cited back in 2018 and 2019?

As far as I’m concerned, there aren’t any.

Yes, some people are very lucky because of their looks or their height and they wind up with extra income because of those random characteristics, but that shouldn’t be a reason for government-coerced redistribution.

The same thing is true for those fortunate enough to be born into the right families.

As I wrote two years ago.

…taller people and better-looking people earn more money and have better lives. That’s genuine unfairness, just like having better parents is a source of genuine unfairness. Yet not even Bernie Sanders or AOC have proposed taxes to equalize those sources of real unfairness.

Yes, the research suggests that life isn’t fair.

But government intervention isn’t the answer, as I explained back in 2011.

The real issue is whether this discrimination is real and whether it justifies government intervention. …I don’t doubt that “lookism” exists. …But does that mean we should have some sort of government bureaucracy with the power to sue, fine, arrest, or otherwise harass based on whether people claim they didn’t get promotions because of their appearance?

Just imagine, for instance, if government tried to redistribute sexual opportunities, as suggested by this example of Elizabeth Warren satire?

I’ll conclude with the observation that if we don’t try to address inequalities caused by random luck, such as looks and height, then why would we want politicians to impose taxes and redistribution to deal with inequalities that are the result of attributes over which we have considerable control, such as diligence, productivity, responsibility, and effort?

P.S. For what it’s worth, research suggests conservatives generally are viewed as more attractive and stronger than folks on the left (though that research also suggests that libertarians generally are perceived as being dorks).

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Back in 2014, I shared two videos, one narrated by Prof. Don Boudreaux and the other narrated by Prof. Deirdre McCloskey, making the point that grinding poverty and material deprivation were the norm for most of human history. It wasn’t until capitalism emerged a few hundred years ago that we made the jump from agricultural poverty to industrial prosperity.

I know at least one person who didn’t watch those videos.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley isn’t as well known as other members the “The Squad,” especially Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar (jointly featured in this bit of satire), but she deserves some sort of recognition for being totally clueless about economics and history. Indeed, she may even deserve some sort of prize for uttering the year’s most economically illiterate sentence.

The two aforementioned videos illustrate why her statement is nonsensical, but let’s share some updated numbers to illustrate why she is profoundly wrong.

The Our World in Data site, maintained by Max Roser at Oxford University, is a great resource for researchers. If you go to the section on economic growth, you’ll find lots of information and many charts examining what has happened to living standards over long periods of time.

For instance, here’s a look at gross domestic product (GDP) over the past 2000 years. As you can see, per-capita economic output was very low (and very flat) until capitalism emerged in the 1700s and 1800s.

Thanks to capitalism’s emergence (along with the rule of law), we are vastly better off today than our ancestors.

Here’s another look at the data, but let’s focus on just the past 200 years. Yes, the 1800s was the era of the “industrial revolution” and so-called sweatshops, but that was a building block to our current prosperity.

To be fair to Congresswoman Pressley, it’s only the first part of her statement (“poverty is not naturally occurring”) that is grossly inaccurate and economically illiterate.

She then added that poverty “is a policy choice,” presumably because she wants people to believe that more redistribution can make it go away. That part of her statement also is wrong, according to both U.S. data and global data, but not quite as ludicrously erroneous.

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There’s a recipe for growth and prosperity. It’s called capitalism.

As Dan Hannan explains in this video, it’s the way to help all groups in a society become richer.

This is a great video about how free enterprise delivers prosperity for the masses.

And because wealthy societies have lots of financial resources, capitalism also is correlated with good outcomes such as reduced pollution and increased literacy.

Hannan makes three key points in his video.

Indeed, the only possible shortcoming in the video is that it truncates Schumpeter’s quote.

As you can see below, it’s not just that free enterprise makes goods available for those at the bottom, it does so in a way that is increasingly affordable over time.

P.S. Here are Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV of the series.

P.P.S. As always, I ask my left-leaning friends to shown me an example, either today or at some point in history, where a society became rich with big government rather than capitalism? I call this my never-answered question.

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While I freely self-identify as a libertarian, I don’t think of myself as a philosophical ideologue.

Instead, I’m someone who likes digging into data to determine the impact of government policy. And because I’ve repeatedly noticed that more government almost always leads to worse outcomes, I’ve become a practical ideologue.

In other words, when looking at at an issue, I now have a default assumption that government is going to be the problem, not the solution.

I think more people will share my viewpoint if they peruse this chart from Mark Perry.

It shows changes in prices for selected goods and services over the past 21 years, and the inescapable conclusion (as I noted when writing about the 2014 version of his chart) is that we get higher relative prices in sectors where there’s the most government intervention.

Especially healthcare and higher education.

By contrast, we see falling relative prices (and sometimes falling absolute prices!) in sectors where there is little or no government intervention.

Here’s some of Mark’s description of what we can learn from his chart.

I’ve updated the chart above with price changes through the end of last year. During the most recent 21-year period from January 2000 to December 2020, the CPI for All Items increased by 54.6% and the chart displays the relative price increases over that time period for 14 selected consumer goods and services, and for average hourly wages. …Various observations that have been made about the huge divergence in price patterns over the last several decades… The greater (lower) the degree of government involvement in the provision of a good or service the greater (lower) the price increases (decreases) over time, e.g., hospital and medical costs, college tuition, childcare with both large degrees of government funding/regulation and large price increases vs. software, electronics, toys, cars and clothing with both relatively less government funding/regulation and falling prices.

By the way, I can’t resist also calling attention to Mark’s data on what’s happened over time to prices for various health care services and procedures.

We find that prices have skyrocketed in areas of the healthcare sector where government plays a big role, especially hospital care.

By contrast, prices have been steady (or even falling!) in areas of the healthcare sector where competitive markets are allowed to operate, most notably for cosmetic procedures.

It’s almost as if it makes sense to have a default assumption that government is the problem rather than the solution.

P.S. While the data in Mark’s chart tell a depressing story about the harmful effect of government intervention, he shares one bit of good news in his article.

The annual increase in college tuition and fees of only 1.4% last year was the smallest annual increase in the history of the CPI for college tuition and fees going back to 1978, and the only annual increase ever below 2%. That increase is far below the average annual increase in college tuition of nearly 7% over the last 42 years. So perhaps the “higher education bubble” is finally starting to show signs of deflating?

I hope he’s right, but worry he’s wrong.

P.P.S. Sadly (but predictably), some people seem to think government-caused price increases are a reason to support more government intervention.

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I rarely write about media bias, but I sometimes come across stories that cry out for correction because of blatant inaccuracies.

We’re going to add to the list today.

In a story for the Washington Post, Tracy Jan (aided by Seung Min Kim and Emily Guskin) argue that the Trump’s policies were bad news for African Americans.

Black voters overwhelmingly chose Biden, with 87 percent casting their ballots for him… Trump presided over the most unequal recession in modern American history because of his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. …Economists say that rather than champion economic policies targeting average Black Americans, who are more likely to work low-wage jobs without health and retirement benefits, Trump’s annual budgets proposed eviscerating the social safety net, with cuts to housing, food stamps and health care.

I have two minor comments and one major comment.

The first minor comment is that Trump never proposed to eviscerate the so-called social safety net. Indeed, he increased domestic spending faster than Obama.

The second minor comment is that the recession was caused by the coronavirus, not by Trump’s policies.

The major comment is that Ms. Jan and her two colleagues wrote a lengthy story (more than 2,000 words) and never once mentioned or acknowledged that the black poverty rate fell to a record low during the Trump years.

Or that median household income for blacks rose to a record high.

This is a shocking level of journalistic malpractice. Sort of like writing about the Cold War without ever mentioning the Soviet Union.

By the way, I’m not saying that a pro-Trump spin was needed. They could have written about the poverty and income data and offered alternative explanations for why there were good numbers.

Heck, that’s what I did.

To be fair, the article does acknowledge that unemployment rate for African Americans fell to a record low during the Trump years.

…the Black unemployment rate’s record low average of 6.1 percent over 2019 — a steady improvement that had begun during the Obama administration — remained double that of Whites.

Though the obvious implication is that Trump doesn’t deserve any credit for a trend that started under Obama.

Which is certainly a legitimate argument, though honest journalists would have cited some people making the counter argument that his policies did make a difference (for what it’s worth, I think it’s a combination of both).

P.S. I’ll add another minor comment. The story quotes several people (all on the left side of the political spectrum) on how African Americans ostensibly will benefit if there is a bigger welfare state and more redistribution.

It’s certainly appropriate to write about that perspective, but why didn’t the three journalists bother to cite at least one person who could have pointed out the inverse relationship between social-welfare spending and the poverty rate?

Or cite at least one person who could have pointed out that low-income people in the United States enjoy higher living standards than middle class people in nations with bigger welfare states?

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Since both political parties have sent good and bad people to the White House, I don’t think it makes much sense to compare all Democratic presidents vs all Republican presidents.

But we can learn a lot by looking at the track record of specific presidents. I’ve done that with several past chief executives (Wilson, Hoover, FDR, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama), and today we’re going to assess Trump’s performance.

The bottom line, as you can see from the chart, is that he did really well in some areas and really poorly in other areas, so his overall record was flat. Or perhaps slightly negative.

The bottom line is that Trump was good on taxes and bad on spending and trade.

And there were some very positive moves on regulation, but they were partly offset by areas where Trump increased intervention (coal subsidies, property rights, Fannie/Freddie, and international tax rules, for instance).

By the way, I’d like to give Trump a negative grade for his failure to address entitlements, but, in the interest of fairness, I only include actual policy changes.

Having given my big-picture assessment, here are some columns and articles that offer interesting insights.

We’ll start with some pro-Trump analysis. Professor Casey Mulligan opined in the Wall Street Journal that he restored growth (until the coronavirus, of course).

The Obama administration promulgated hundreds of new federal regulations that protected certain special interests from market competition. The beneficiaries included large banks, trial lawyers, big tech, major health-insurance companies, labor unions and foreign drug manufacturers. President Trump promised to undo all that, and in many cases succeeded, sometimes with the help of a Republican Congress. …Mr. Trump also helped remove government obstacles to innovation and competition in health care. Democrats will tell you that the first calendar-year drop in retail prescription drug prices in 46 years was mere coincidence, not the result of deregulation. …The Fed and the Obama economic team overpredicted growth almost every year from 2010-16. When growth failed to meet their rosy predictions, Mr. Obama’s advisers blamed the poor economic performance on America itself. …No one in Washington predicted that small business optimism would skyrocket to record levels when Mr. Trump was elected, that real wages would grow again (especially for blue-collar workers), that business formation would hit 20th-century highs, or that poverty and unemployment rates would quickly fall to record lows for Hispanics and African-Americans.  …Although Mr. Trump’s economic policy was imperfect, it was preferable by a long shot to Mr. Obama’s, which punished work, hiring and success rather than rewarding them. 

And here’s a chart that definitely makes Trump look good compared to Obama.

Those numbers will look much worse once 2020 numbers are included, but I won’t blame Trump for coronavirus-caused economic havoc (though I also don’t give him full credit for the good data in 2019).

Now let’s look at some less-than-flattering analysis.

Jeffrey Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research lists some of Trump’s statist policies.

From 2015, even from his first public speeches following his presidential run, it was clear that Donald Trump was not a conservative in the Reagan tradition… This is not an American ideal. It’s not about freedom, rights, the rule of law, much less the limits on government. …Trump’s first year began with a more traditional Republican agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and non-progressive court appointments. …That all changed on January 22, 2018. …This was the beginning of the trade war that would expand to Europe, Canada, Mexico, most of Asia, and ultimately the entire world. …What he ended up seeking was nothing short of trade autarky. …In addition to this calamity, US government spending soared 47% while the money supply registered record increases as measured by M1. The effects of this debt and money printing will be felt through next year.

Rick Newman wrote for Yahoo that Trump’s fiscal performance makes him an honorary Democrat.

Trump’s last-second objection to the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill Congress approved after eight months of negotiation is an unexpected Christmas gift for Democrats. Trump says the $600 direct payment to most Americans contained in the bill is too small. He wants $2,000. Trump could have insisted on this while Congress was drafting the bill… Democrats are gleeful. They’d happily accept a supersized stimulus payment, and even better, they now get to watch Republicans battle each other as they try to figure out what to do about Trump. Some Congressional Republicans think $2,000 is too generous, and there’s no chance of that getting into the bill unless other provisions come out. 

Newman was focusing on Trump’s spending proclivities during the pandemic, but the assertion that “maybe Trump’s a Democrat” applies to his fiscal record during his first three years as well.

P.S. I didn’t rank Trump on monetary policy for the same reason I didn’t rank Obama on that issue. Simply stated, I think both of them pursued a misguided Keynesian approach of easy money and artificially low interest rates, but we don’t have firm evidence (yet) of negative consequences.

P.P.S. I also didn’t give Trump a grade, positive or negative, regarding coronavirus. The federal government failed, but those failures largely were independent of the White House.

P.P.P.S. I generally approved of Trump’s judicial appointments, but don’t includes judges in my assessments of economic policy (though I may have to change my mind if they restore the Constitution’s protections of economic liberty and limits on the power of Washington).

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I have repeatedly warned that nations get in fiscal trouble when government is too big and growing too fast.

In such countries, it’s very common to find high levels of government debt as one of the symptoms of excessive spending.

This can create the conditions for a fiscal crisis, particularly during an economic downturn. Simply stated, investors (the people who buy government bonds) begin to worry that governments may renege on their promises (i.e., default).

There’s a must-read story on this issue in today’s Washington Post suggesting that the economic fallout from coronavirus has created conditions for new fiscal crises in nations across the globe.

Authored by Alexander VillegasAnthony Faiola Lesley Wroughton, the report explains that the downturn has produced record levels of debt.

Around the globe, the pandemic is racking up a mind-blowing bill: trillions of dollars in lost tax revenue, ramped-up spending and new borrowing set to burden the next generation with record levels of debt. In the direst cases — low- and middle-income countries, mostly in Africa and Latin America, that are already saddled with backbreaking debt — covering the rising costs is transforming into a high-stakes test of national solvency. …By the end of 2020, total government debt worldwide was projected to soar by $9 trillion and top 103 percent of global GDP, according to the Institute of International Finance — a historic jump of more than 10 percentage points in just one year. Countries have maxed out their figurative credit cards.

Keep in mind, by the way, that spending burdens were climbing in most nations, leading to more red ink, even before the pandemic.

That was true in developed nations (the U.S., Europe, Japan), but also in developing nations.

And, the story explains that developed nations are far more vulnerable to fiscal crisis.

The pandemic is hurtling heavily leveraged nations into an economic danger zone, threatening to bankrupt the worst-affected. Costa Rica, a country known for zip-lining tourists and American retirees, is scrambling to stave off a full-blown debt crisis, imposing emergency cuts and proposing harsher measures that touched off rare violent protests last fall. …Angola, in contrast, effectively shut out of global markets, is racing to strike a deal with the Chinese, but even that might not be enough to prevent a painful debt crisis. Sri Lanka, locked in recession, needs to make $4 billion in debt payments this year with only $6 billion in the bank. Brazil’s debt, worsened by a yawning budget deficit, has surged to a crippling 95 percent of GDP — raising alarm over the medium-term ability of the Latin American giant to stay afloat. …Zambia, once a shining example of Africa’s economic renaissance, is now the Ghost of Crises Future for debt-burdened countries slammed by the pandemic. The sub-Saharan nation fell into default in November.

Here’s a visual from the report.

To simplify, it’s good to be in a lighter-colored nation and bad to be in a darker-colored country. At least in terms of national debt burdens.

All this grim data understandably raises the very important question of what choices governments should now make.

Sadly, some self-styled experts are actually urging even more spending, mostly because of a dogmatic belief in the supposed elixir of Keynesian economics. In other words, they want governments to dig a deeper hole.

Analysts argue that the need for stimulus to keep economies running during this historically challenging period still outweighs the need to balance budgets. …the IMF…is telling countries that now is not the time to scrimp, lest they jeopardize still-fragile economic recoveries.

Politicians will want to follow that advice because it tells them that their vice (buying votes with other people’s money) is a virtue (more spending magically can boost growth).

In the real world, there are two big lessons we should learn.

  • First, it’s profoundly reckless to further increase tax and spending burdens when nations are already in trouble because of previous bouts of fiscal profligacy.
  • Second, countries should focus on spending restraint in both the short run and long run, ideally by enacting caps to limit annual spending increases.

For what it’s worth, the U.S. would be in great shape today if, back in 2000, lawmakers had adopted a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.S. One reason that spending caps work so well is that there’s built-in flexibility when dealing with economic volatility.

P.P.S. Financing government with the printing press won’t work any better than financing it with taxes and debt.

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For supporters of sensible policy, 2008 was not a good year. The economy suffered a big drop thanks to bad government policies (easy-money from the Federal Reserve and corrupt housing subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).

So what did politicians do?

Sadly, they gave us another tragic example of Mitchell’s Law. In response the damage caused by one set of bad policies, they adopted another set of bad government policies (in this case, the TARP bailout and Keynesian “stimulus” schemes).

Quite predictably, bailouts and bigger government didn’t work. Either in the United States or elsewhere in the world.

But proponents of Keynesian economics never learn from their mistakes. They simply assert that their policies somehow would have worked if the government spent even more money and maintained profligacy over a longer period of time.

You may think I’m joking, but here’s another example of this phenomenon. According to a recent news report, a senior bureaucrat at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says we can have more prosperity if politicians make government bigger – both today and tomorrow.

The chief economist of the OECD has urged governments not to rush to cut public spending deficits… Laurence Boone – who runs the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Economics Department – also said that political leaders should use fiscal policy to revive their economies… Boone said that governments had been correct to invest in stimulus packages during 2009: “The mistake came later in 2010, 2011 and so on, and that was true on both sides of the Atlantic,” she commented.

Needless to say, her analysis is wrong. If the answer is lots of spending over a long period of time, then why did the U.S. economy languish for an entire decade under the Keynesian policies of Hoover and FDR? And why has the Japanese economy languished for several decades when politicians on that side of the Pacific Ocean have imposed Keynesian policies?

Before pushing for another orgy of government spending, shouldn’t advocates of Keynesian economics be required to show us at least one success story for their approach, in any country and at any point in history?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.

By the way, before getting her sinecure at the OECD, Ms. Boone was an economic advisor to French President Francois Hollande.

That should have been a black mark. Hollande was the socialist who imposed confiscatory tax rates (resulting in effective tax rates above 100 percent for thousands of people) and drove entrepreneurs to flee the nation. Also, I can’t resist noting that Hollande copied Biden with the absurd assertion that higher taxes are “patriotic.”

Though, to be fair, Hollande eventually decided to be merciful and limit any taxpayer’s overall burden to 80 percent. How merciful!

Anyhow, you would think anyone associated with Hollande’s disastrous tenure would have a hard time getting another job.

But to the statists in charge of hiring at the OECD, Boone’s association with failed socialists policies apparently made her the most attractive candidate.

P.S. Returning to the article cited above, Ms. Boone did make one sensible observation, noting that Keynesian easy-money policies push up asset prices, which mostly benefits the rich.

…governments propped up growth with monetary policy – slashing interest rates and pumping liquidity into the banking system. But Boone argued that monetary policy “has distributional impacts” – it can for example drive up asset prices, favouring the wealthy.

Very true.

It’s great when people become rich by providing goods and services to the rest of us. It’s nauseating when people become rich because of bad government policy.

P.P.S. If governments follow Ms. Boone’s and expand the burden of government spending, it will be just a matter of time before they also impose higher taxes. But Ms. Boone won’t have to worry about that since OECD bureaucrats (like their counterparts at other international bureaucracies) get tax-free salaries.

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A “capital gain” occurs when you buy something and later sell it for a higher price. A capital gains tax is when politicians decide they get to grab a slice of that additional wealth.

I’ve repeatedly explained that it is economically foolish to have such a tax because it punishes saving, investment, risk taking, and entrepreneurship.

Simply stated, the capital gains tax is “double taxation,” which is what happens when there are additional layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

I’m motivated to address this issue again because of a recent column in the Washington Post by Charles Lane.

He wants us to believe that singer-songwriter Bob Dylan has been rewarded by the capital gains tax.

Bob Dylan…just sold the rights to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and 600 other songs to Universal Music Publishing Group for a reported $300 million. …This is a tribute to his genius and, on the whole, to a political and economic system that rewards artists… Nevertheless, some socially conscious musician could write a song protesting the Dylan deal, because of what it reveals about that engine of irrationality and inequality known as the U.S. tax system. A cardinal defect of the system is highly favorable treatment of capital gains relative to ordinary income. The top rate on the former stands at 20 percent; on the latter, it is 37 percent. …the obscure 2006 law known as the Songwriters Capital Gains Tax Equity Act, which permits songwriters — but not painters, video game makers or novelists — to treat the proceeds from selling their copyrights as capital gains, too. …The capital gains break, for him and for others similarly situated, is basically a windfall. …President-elect Joe Biden supports equalizing capital gains and ordinary income rates, at least for households earning more than $1 million. If kept, Biden’s promise would restore a measure of equity and efficiency to the tax system.

At the risk of understatement, I disagree.

What Mr. Lane doesn’t appreciate or understand is that the Universal Music Publishing Group purchased the rights to Dylan’s music for $300 million because they expect his songs to generate more than $300 million of income in the future.

And that future income will be taxed when (and if) it actually materializes.

In other words, a capital gains tax is – for all intents and purposes – an added layer of tax on the expectation of future income. Double taxation in every possible sense.

This is why I’ve pointed out that Biden’s plan will make the tax code more punitive, not more equitable and efficient as Lane asserted.

Since we’re on the topic of capital gains taxation, I’ll also cite some relatively new research from the San Francisco Federal Reserve.

Here are the key findings in the working paper from Sungki Hong and Terry Moon.

This paper quantifies the aggregate effects of reducing capital gains taxes in the long run. We build a dynamic general equilibrium model with heterogeneous firms facing discrete capital gains tax rates based on firm size. We calibrate our model by targeting relevant micro moments and the difference-in-differences estimate of the capital elasticity based on the institutional setting in Korea. We find that the reform that reduced the capital gains tax rates from 24 percent to 10 percent for the firms affected by the new regulations increased aggregate investment by 2.6 percent and 1.7 percent in the short run and in the steady state, respectively. Moreover, a counterfactual analysis where we set a uniformly low tax rate of 10 percent shows that aggregate investment rose by 6.8 percent in the long run. …Our findings suggest that reducing capital gains tax rates would substantially increase investment in the short run, and accounting for dynamic and general equilibrium responses is important for understanding the aggregate effects of capital gains taxes.

And here are two of the key charts from the study.

And here’s the part of the study that explains the above charts.

Panel A in Figure 2…shows the parallel trend in investment between the affected and unaffected firms…positive and statistically significant coefficients after the year 2014 indicate that lower tax rates induced the affected firms to increase investment. Panel B in Figure 2…shows the parallel trend in investment between the affected and unaffected firms…positive and statistically significant coefficients after the year 2014 indicate that lower tax rates induced the affected firms to increase the size of tangible assets.

The bottom line is that is that you get higher wages with more productivity…and you get more productivity with more investment…and you get more investment if you don’t impose harsh tax policies on people who invest.

Which is why the correct capital gains tax rate is zero, whether you’re looking at theory or evidence.

Which is the core message in my video on capital gains taxation.

P.S. There’s also a video explaining why it’s especially wrong to impose the capital gains tax on “gains” that are solely the result of inflation.

P.P.S. And somebody needs to do a video on why it’s an awful idea for the government to tax capital gains that only exist in theory.

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