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Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Since I’m a proponent of tax reform, I don’t like special favors in the tax code.

Deductions, exemptions, credits, exclusions, and other preferences are back-door forms of cronyism and government intervention.

Indeed, they basically exist to lure people into making decisions that otherwise aren’t economically rational.

These distortionary provisions help to explain why we have a hopelessly convoluted and deeply corrupt tax code of more than 75,000 pages.

And they also encourage higher tax rates as greedy politicians seek alternative sources of revenue.

This current debate over “tax extenders” is a sad illustration of why the system is such a mess.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy explains how special interests work the system.

Tax extenders are temporary and narrowly targeted tax provisions for individuals and businesses. Examples include the deductibility of mortgage-insurance premiums and tax credits for coal produced from reserves owned by Native American tribes. …These tax provisions were last authorized as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which retroactively extended them through the end of 2017, after which they have thus far been left to remain expired. If Congress indeed takes up extenders during the current lame-duck session, any extended provisions are likely to once again apply retroactively through the end of 2018, or perhaps longer. There are several problems with this approach to tax policy. Frequently allowing tax provisions to expire before retroactively reauthorizing them creates uncertainty that undermines any potential benefits from incentivizing particular behaviors.

To make matters more complicated, a few of the extenders are good policy because they seek to limit double taxation (a pervasive problem in the U.S. tax system).

…not all tax extenders are a problem. Some are meant to avoid or limit the double taxation of income that’s common in our tax code. Those extenders should be preserved. Yet others are straightforward giveaways to special interests. Those should be eliminated.

Veronique suggests a sensible approach.

It’s time for a new approach under which tax extenders are evaluated and debated on their individual merits. The emphasis should be on eliminating special-interest handouts or provisions that otherwise represent bad policy. Conversely, any and all worthy provisions should be made permanent features of the tax code. …The dire need to fix the federal budget, along with the dysfunctional effects from extenders, should provide the additional motivation needed to end this practice once and for all.

Needless to say, Washington is very resistant to sensible policies.

In part, that’s for the typical “public choice” reasons (i.e., special interests getting into bed with politicians to manipulate the system).

But the debate over extenders is even sleazier than that.

As Howard Gleckman explained for Forbes, lobbyists, politicians, and other insiders relish temporary provisions because they offer more than one bite at the shakedown apple.

If you are a lobbyist, this history represents scalps on your belt (and client fees in your pocket). If you are a member of Congress, it is the gift that keeps on giving—countless Washington reps and their clients attending endless fundraisers, all filling your campaign coffers, election after election. An indelible image: It is pre-dawn in September, 1986. House and Senate tax writers have just completed their work on the Tax Reform Act.  A lobbyist friend sits forlornly in the corner of the majestic Ways & Means Committee hearing room. “What’s wrong,” I naively ask, “Did you lose some stuff?” Oh no, he replies, he got three client amendments in the bill. And that was the problem. After years of billable hours, his gravy train had abruptly derailed. The client got what it wanted. Permanently. And it no longer needed him. Few make that mistake now. Lawmakers, staffs, and lobbyists have figured out how to keep milking the cash cow. There are now five dozen temporary provisions, all of which need to be renewed every few years. To add to the drama, Congress often lets them expire so it can step in at the last minute to retroactively resurrect the seemingly lifeless subsidies.

In other words, the temporary nature of extenders is a feature, not a bug.

This is a perfect (albeit depressing) example of how the federal government is largely a racket. It enriches insiders (as I noted a few days ago) and the rest of us bear the cost.

All of which reinforces my wish that we could rip up the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax. Not only would we get more growth, we would eliminate a major avenue for D.C. corruption.

P.S. I focused today on the perverse process, but I can’t help but single out the special tax break for electric vehicles, which unquestionably is one of the most egregious tax extenders.

EV tax credits…subsidize the wealthy at the expense of the lower and middle classes. Recent research by Dr. Wayne Winegarden of the Pacific Research Institute shows that 79 percent of EV tax credits were claimed by households with adjusted gross incomes greater than $100,000. Asking struggling Americans to subsidize the lifestyles of America’s wealthiest is perverse… Voters also shouldn’t be fooled by the promise of large environmental benefits. Modern internal combustion engines emit very little pollution compared to older models. Electric vehicles are also only as clean as the electricity that powers them, which in the United States primarily comes from fossil fuels.

I was hoping that provisions such as the EV tax credit would get wiped out as part of tax reform. Alas, it survived.

I don’t like when politicians mistreat rich people, but I get far more upset when they do things that impose disproportionate costs on poor people. This is one of the reasons I especially dislike government flood insuranceSocial Security, government-run lotteries, the Export-Import Bank, the mortgage interest deduction, or the National Endowment for the Arts. Let’s add the EV tax credit to this shameful list.

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I’m not a fan of President Bush. The first one or the second one.

Both adopted policies that, on net, reduced economic liberty.

Today, let’s focus on the recently deceased George H.W. Bush (a.k.a., Bush 41). By all accounts, he was a very good man, but that doesn’t mean he was a very good president. Or even a mildly good one.

Steve Moore’s column in the Washington Times is a damning indictment of his infamous read-my-lips tax betrayal.

Liberals love George H.W. Bush for the very tax increase betrayal that destroyed his presidency. …This was not just the political blunder of the half-century, it was a fiscal policy catastrophe. …What the history books are writing is that Mr. Bush showed political “courage” in breaking his “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge, and he was thrown out of office for doing the right thing. Wrong. The quick story is that the Reagan expansion — in no small part due to the reduction of the highest tax rates from 70 percent to 28 percent — was shrinking deficit spending dramatically by the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The budget deficit had fallen in half down to 2.9 percent of GDP by 1988. It was headed to below 2 percent if Mr. Bush simply had did nothing. …the 1990 budget deal became a license for Democrats to spend and spend. …Government expenditures accelerated at a faster pace than at any time in 30 years. In two years time, the domestic budget grew by almost 20 percent above inflation. …The tax increases either caused the recession or exacerbated it — ending the Reagan expansion. The economy lost 100,000 jobs and the unemployment rate rose and the unemployment rate rose from 5.5 percent to 7.4 percent. Real disposable income fell from 1990 to the eve of the 1992 election. If this tax hike was a success, so was the Hindenburg.

There’s a lot of good analysis in Steve’s column.

But I want to emphasize the part about the budget deficit being on a downward trajectory when Reagan left the White House. That’s absolutely accurate, as confirmed by both OMB and CBO projections.

All Bush needed to do was maintain the Gipper’s pro-market policies.

Unfortunately, he decided that “kinder and gentler” meant putting Washington first and giving politicians and bureaucrats more power over the economy.

And not just on fiscal policy.

Jim Bovard points out in USA Today that Bush 41 also had some very unseemly bouts of protectionism.

Bush was the most protectionist president since Herbert Hoover. Like Trump, he spoke of the need for level playing fields and fair trade. But Bush-style fairness gave federal bureaucrats practically endless vetoes over Americans’ freedom to choose foreign goods. Bush’s Commerce Department ravaged importers with one bureaucratic scam after another, using the dumping law to convict 97 percent of imports investigated, claiming that their prices were unfairly low to American producers (not consumers). Bush also ordered the U.S. International Trade Commission to investigate after ice cream imports threatened to exceed one percent of the U.S. market. And he perpetuated import quotas on steel and machine tools. …he slapped new textile import quotas on Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, the Philippines, Burma (now Myanmar), Costa Rica, Panama, Pakistan and many other nations. Mexico was allowed to sell Americans only 35,292 bras in 1989 — part of a byzantine regime that also restricted imports of tampons, typing ribbons, tarps, twine, table linen, tapestries, ties and thousands of other products.

To be fair, George H.W. Bush played a key role in moving forward NAFTA and the WTO/GATT, so his record on trade is mixed rather than bad.

Let’s return to the tax issue. Alan Reynolds explains that the Bush 41 tax hike was a painful example of the Laffer Curve in action.

The late President G.H.W. Bush famously reneged on his “no new taxes” pledge… The new law was intended to raise more revenue from high-income households and unincorporated businesses.  It was supposed to raise revenue partly by raising the top tax rate from 28% to 31% but more importantly by phasing-out deductions and personal exemptions… Treasury estimates expected revenues after the 1990 budget deal to be higher by a half-percent of GDP.  What happened instead is that revenues fell from 17.8% of GDP in 1989 to 17.3% in 1991, and then to 17% in 1992 and 1993.  Instead of rising from 17.8% of GDP to 18.3% as initial estimates assumed, revenues fell to 17%. …A recession began in October 1990, just as the intended tax increase was being enacted.  To blame the weak revenues of 1991-93 entirely on that brief recession begs the obvious question: To what extent was a recession that began with a tax increase caused or at least worsened by that tax increase?  …When discussing tax increases (or tax cuts), journalists and economists must take care to distinguish between intended effects on revenue and actual effects.

We’ll never know, of course, how the 1990 tax increase impacted the economy. As a general rule, I think monetary policy is the first place to look when assigning blame for downturns.

But there’s no question that the tax increase wasn’t helpful.

That being said, my biggest complaint about Bush 41 was not his tax increase. It was all the new spending.

Not just new spending in general. What’s especially galling is that he allowed domestic spending to skyrocket. Almost twice as fast as it increased under Obama and more than twice the rate of increase we endured under Clinton and Carter.

The opposite of Reaganomics, to put it mildly.

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Steve Moore and Art Laffer are the authors of Trumponomics, a largely favorable book about the President’s economic policy.

I have a more jaundiced view about Trump.

I’m happy to praise his good policies (taxes and regulation), but I also condemn his bad policies (spending and trade).

And as you might expect, some people are completely on the opposite side from Moore and Laffer.

Writing for New York, Jonathan Chait offers a very unfriendly review of the book. He starts by categorizing Steve and Art (as well as Larry Kudlow, who wrote the foreword) as being fixated on tax rates.

The authors of Trumponomics are Larry Kudlow (who left in the middle of its writing to accept a job as director of the National Economic Council), Stephen Moore, and Arthur Laffer. The three fervently propound supply-side economics, a doctrine that holds that economic performance hinges largely on maintaining low tax rates on the rich. …Kudlow, Moore, and Laffer are unusually fixated on tax cuts, but they are merely extreme examples of the entire Republican Establishment, which shared their broad priorities.

For what it’s worth, I think low tax rates are good policy. And I suspect that the vast majority of economists will agree with the notion that lower tax rates are better for growth than high tax rates.

But Chait presumably thinks that Larry, Steve, and Art overstate the importance of low rates (hence, the qualification about “economic performance hinges largely”).

To bolster his case, he claims advocates of low tax rates were wrong about the 1990s and the 2000s.

In the 1990s, the supply-siders insisted Bill Clinton’s increase in the top tax rate would create a recession and cause revenue to plummet. The following decade, they heralded the Bush tax cuts as the elixir that had brought in a glorious new era of prosperity. …The supply-siders have maintained absolute faith in their dogma in the face of repeated failure by banishing all doubt. …they have confined their failed predictions to the memory hole.

If Chait’s point is simply that some supply-siders have been too exuberant at times, I won’t argue. Exaggeration, overstatement, and tunnel vision are pervasive on all sides in Washington.

Heck, I sometimes fall victim to the same temptation, though I try to atone for my bouts of puffery by bending over backwards to point out that taxation is just one piece of the big policy puzzle.

Which is why I want to focus on this next excerpt from Chait’s article. He is very agitated that the book praises the economic performance of the Clinton years and criticizes the economic performance of the Bush years.

A brief economic history in Trumponomics touts the gains made from 1982 to 1999, and laments “those gains stalled out after 2000 under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.” Notice, in addition to starting the Reagan era in 1982, thus absolving him for any blame for the recession that began a year into his presidency, they have retroactively moved the hated leftist Bill Clinton into the right-wing hero camp and the beloved conservative hero George W. Bush into the failed left-wing statist camp.

Well, there’s a reason Clinton is in the good camp and Bush is in the bad camp.

As you can see from Economic Freedom of the World (I added some numbers and commentary), the U.S. enjoyed increasing economic liberty during the 1990s and suffered decreasing economic liberty during the 2000s.

For what it’s worth, I’m not claiming that Bill Clinton wanted more economic liberty or that George W. Bush wanted more statism. Maybe the credit/blame belongs to Congress. Or maybe presidents get swept up in events that happen to occur when they’re in office.

All I’m saying is that Steve and Art are correct when they point out that the nation got better overall policy under Clinton and worse overall policy under Bush.

In other words, Clinton’s 1993 tax increase was bad, but it was more than offset by pro-market reforms in other areas. Likewise, Bush’s tax cuts were good, but they were more than offset by anti-market policies in other areas.

P.S. Chait complained about Moore and Laffer “starting the Reagan era in 1982, thus absolving him for any blame for the recession that began a year into his presidency”.

Since I’m a fan of Reaganomics, I feel compelled to offer three comments.

  • First, the recession began in July 1981. That’s six months into Reagan’s presidency rather than one year.
  • Second, does Chait really want to claim that the downturn was Reagan’s fault? If so, I’m curious to get his explanation for how a tax cut that was signed in August caused a recession that began the previous month.
  • Third, the recession almost certainly should be blamed on bad monetary policy, and even Robert Samuelson points out that Reagan deserves immense praise for his handling of that issue.

P.P.S. Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax hike didn’t produce the budget surpluses of the late 1990s. If you don’t believe me, check out the numbers from Bill Clinton’s FY1996 budget.

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While capitalism is the only system to produce mass prosperity, I actually support free enterprise more because it is a moral system based on voluntary exchange. The various forms of statism, by contrast, are based on government coercion.

But non-coercion not the only moral reason to support capitalism. I also applaud that free markets penalize racism and sexism. Simply stated, narrow-minded people are going to lose business to ethical competitors and forego income if they make choices based on animus rather than what makes economic sense.

This doesn’t mean an end to racism and sexism, but it certainly suggests that systemic and pervasive discrimination is very unlikely without government intervention (such as the Jim Crow laws that created government-enforced racism).

This is why I’m naturally suspicious of the claim that there’s a gender pay gap.

Mark Perry and Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute summarize the issue, pointing out that wage differences reflect personal choices and economic realities

…the 20% gender wage gap is actually a tiresome statistical myth that persists in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. …The reality is that men and women make very different career and work choices, and frequently play very different family roles, especially for families with children. While gender discrimination undoubtedly occurs, it is individuals’ choice – not discrimination – which accounts for the vast majority of gender differences in earnings. …Compensating wage differentials are differences in pay that are designed to attract employees to jobs that otherwise would be undesirable. …The undesirable aspects of certain jobs can range from the mundane to the gruesome. For instance, men have longer average commute times to their jobs than women. In the U.S., the average male spends 33 more hours commuting to work each year. How much extra pay would you demand to spend the equivalent of four additional eight-hour days sitting in traffic or on a bus riding to work? …men are also much more likely to be injured or killed on the job. Economists have long found that, all else equal, more dangerous jobs pay higher average wages than safer jobs. And the 20 jobs with the highest occupational fatality rates are on average 94% male and 92.5% of workplace fatalities overall are men.

Writing for the Hill, Christina Hoff Summers of AEI issues a challenge that left-feminists are unable to answer. They never even try.

Everywhere we hear that for the same work, women only make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Think about that. If it were true, why wouldn’t businesses only hire women? Wages are the biggest expense for most businesses. So, hiring only women would reduce costs by nearly a quarter — and that would go right to the bottom line.

She points out that academic research repeatedly had debunked the claim that there is systemic discrimination that requires government intervention.

…this claim has been debunked over and over again. …The 23-cent gender pay gap we often hear about is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women who work full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. When economists account for these relevant factors, the wage gap narrows to a few cents. By now, even feminist wage gap activists agree — at least when pressed.

Speaking of academic evidence, the Wall Street Journal opines about some recent research from Harvard economists.

Progressives claim that the pay difference between men and women is caused by sexism that government must redress. But a new study offers compelling evidence that the choices and priorities of women account for much of the disparity. The study examined data from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority because it is a union shop with uniform hourly wages in which men and women adhere to the same rules and enjoy the same benefits. Workers are promoted based on seniority, not performance. Male and female workers of the same seniority have the same options for scheduling, routes, vacation and overtime. Under such rigid work rules, even a sexist boss or manager would have little ability to give men preferential treatment. Yet even at the Transportation Authority, female train and bus operators earned less than men. To explain why, Harvard economists Valentin Bolotnyy and Natalia Emanuel looked at time cards and scheduling from 2011 to 2017, also factoring in sex, age, date of hire, tenure, and whether an employee was married or had dependents. They found that male train and bus operators worked about 83% more overtime hours than their female colleagues and were twice as likely to accept an overtime shift on short notice. …The study ratifies the common-sense observation that men and women often have different priorities, and the best way to accommodate them is through the marketplace, not the untender mercies of government.

Notwithstanding all this evidence, some journalists are willing to publicize nonsensical numbers. Here are some excerpts from a column by Annie Lowrey in the Atlantic.

Do women earn…a shocking 49 cents on the dollar, as calculated by the social scientists Stephen Rose and Heidi Hartmann in a new analysis published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research? …According to Rose, …the most accurate way to compare women’s and men’s earnings is to take the career-long view. “When you look at all women versus all men over time, the gap is 51 cents,” he said, referring to the 15-year figure. …What might help close this wide, long earnings chasm? Rose and Hartmann suggest…paid family leave and child-care subsidies…public-policy changes would give women more control over their working lives, and would help foster a more equitable workplace. And that would be good for everybody.

I’m guessing Ms Lowrey knows this study is tripe because she seeks to preserve her credibility by noting that pay gaps basically disappear when using honest numbers.

The most common way to measure the gender earnings gap is to look at how much women working full-time and year-round make, and compare it with what men working full-time and year-round make. …That number has some significant shortcomings, researchers have long argued. Women work different kinds of jobs than men do and have different levels of work experience, too. …Comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges, women earn close to what men earn: Women in similar workplaces with similar titles and similar credentials make pretty much what their male peers do, whether they are fast-food employees making close to the minimum wage or corporate executives making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

But she doesn’t explain why the study is garbage.

To understand that, we’ll turn to Carrie Lukas, who debunks the IWPR numbers for National Review.

The study claims that the wage gap has been woefully understated, and that in reality women “earn just 49 cents to the typical men’s dollar, much less than the 80 cents usually reported.” How did they come to this jaw-dropping conclusion? Simple. They have redefined the “gender wage gap.” They are no longer looking at full-time workers, or even at consistent part-time workers. Rather, they are comparing the earnings of all women and all men who worked at any point during a 15-year period. More than four out of every ten women took more than a year out of the work force during that period, which was nearly twice the rate of men. As a result, women, on average, earned a lot less. That’s hardly a shock. …IWPR is misleading readers with the suggestion that the “wage gap” is really 49 cents on the dollar. …those who care about women’s economic advancement should seek to build an awareness of the very real consequences of the choices women make they decide what to study, which fields to enter, and how to plan their work lives so they can make informed choices.

Let’s close with this video from Ms. Sommers, which includes some rather amusing information about hypocrisy in the Obama White House.

P.S. Since I mentioned the previous administration, it’s worth noting that one of Obama’s appointees to the Council of Economic Advisers refused to defend the White House’s absurd claim that women only got 77 cents for doing the same work as men.

P.P.S. Given its track record of shoddy and biased output, is anyone surprised that the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is pushing dishonest gender pay data?

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Three weeks ago, I shared a video about the economics of trade balances.

Here’s the next video in the Freedom Partner series, which looks at why trade (whether inside a nation or across borders) makes our lives better.

Simply stated, we would all be miserably poor if we couldn’t trade.

But when we can exchange with each other, we naturally begin to specialize in what we like and what we do best. Adam Smith referred to this as the “division of labour” and he noted that this enables much greater prosperity.

A related concept is comparative advantage, which is a way of illustrating how we become richer when trade enables us to focus on what we do best compared to others.

Alan Blinder summarized this concept in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

A snarky mathematician once challenged the great Paul Samuelson to name an economic proposition that is true but not obvious. Samuelson’s choice was comparative advantage, which shows, among other things, that there are mutual gains from trade even if one nation is better than another at producing everything. Here’s a homespun illustration. Suppose a surgeon is also a whiz at house painting—better than most professional painters. Should she therefore take time off from her medical practice to paint her own house? Certainly not. For while she may have a slight edge over most painters when it comes to painting walls, she has an enormous edge when it comes to performing surgery. Surgery is her comparative advantage, so she should specialize in it and let some others, who don’t know their way around an operating room, specialize in painting—their comparative advantage. That way, the whole economy becomes more efficient. The same principle applies to nations.

Some of Samuelson’s observations over a lengthy and influential career were not so great, but his analysis about comparative advantage was spot on.

This short clip from Matt Ridley also is a very good description of why we should trade and reap the benefits of comparative advantage.

Last but not least, here’s a video from FEE on why specialization gives us so many great things.

By the way, I cited a couple of studies in my video.

The one showing 2-percent to 5-percent faster growth was published by the International Monetary Fund last November. Here’s part of the abstract.

In the cross section of countries, there is a strong positive correlation between trade and income, and a negative relationship between trade and inequality. Does this reflect a causal relationship? We adopt the Frankel and Romer (1999) identification strategy, and exploit countries’ exogenous geographic characteristics to estimate the causal effect of trade on income and inequality. Our cross-country estimates for trade’s impact on real income are consistently positive and significant over time.

And here’s the best chart from the study.

It shows that pro-trade nations are both more rich (solid green line) and more equal (dashed green line).

The moral of the story is that protectionism generates undeserved riches for the friends of politicians while lowering the living standards of everyone else.

The other study is from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Here are the key findings.

We use four very different methods to estimate past gains. Each of these methods entails its own set of assumptions. Estimated annual gains are on the order of $1 trillion. The estimated gain in 2003 income is in the range of $2,800 to $5,000 additional income for the average person and between $7,100 and $12,900 for the average household. Future gains are harder to quantify, not surprisingly since the future is always difficult to predict. The estimates range from $450 billion to $1.3 trillion.

And my favorite visual from the study shows the negative impact of 1930s-style trade taxes.

At the risk of understatement, repeating the policies of Herbert Hoover would be a very bad idea.

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The central argument against punitive taxation is that it leads to less economic activity.

Here’s a visual from an excellent video tutorial by Professor Alex Tabarrok. It shows that government grabs a share of private output when a tax is imposed, thus reducing the benefits to buyers (“consumer surplus”) and sellers (“producer surplus).

But it also shows that some economic activity never takes place (“deadweight loss”).

When discussing the economics of taxation, I always try to remind people that deadweight loss also represents foregone taxable activity, which is why the Laffer Curve is a very real thing (as even Paul Krugman admits).

To see these principles at work in the real world, let’s look at a report from the Washington Post. The story deals with cigarette taxation, but I’m not sharing this out of any sympathy for smokers. Instead, the goal is to understand and appreciate the broader point of how changes in tax policy can cause changes in behavior.

The sign on the window of a BP gas station in Southeast Washington advertises a pack of Newports for $10.75. Few customers were willing to pay that much. But several men in the gas station’s parking lot had better luck illegally hawking single cigarettes for 75 cents. The drop in legal sales and spike in black market “loosies” are the result of $2-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes that took effect last month… Anti-tobacco advocates hailed the higher legal age and the tax increase as ways to discourage smoking. But retailers say the city has instead encouraged the black market and sent customers outside the city.

Since I don’t want politicians to have more money, I’m glad smokers are engaging in tax avoidance.

And I feel sympathy for merchants who are hurt by the tax.

Shoukat Choudhry, the owner of the BP and four other gas stations in the city, says he does not see whom the higher taxes are helping. His customers can drive less than a mile to buy cheaper cigarettes in Maryland. He says the men in his parking lot are selling to teenagers. And the city is not getting as much tax revenue from his shops. Cigarette revenue at the BP store alone fell from $63,000 in September to $45,000 in October, when the tax increase took effect on the first of the month. …The amateur sellers say the higher cigarette tax has not been a bonanza for them. They upped their price a quarter for a single cigarette.

It’s also quite likely that the Laffer Curve will wreak havoc with the plans of the D.C. government.

Citywide figures for cigarette sales in October — as measured by tax revenue — will not be available until next month, city officials said. The District projected higher cigarette taxes would bring in $12 million over the next four years. Proceeds from the tax revenue are funding maternal and early childhood care programs. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says the fear of declining tax revenue because of black market sales has not materialized elsewhere.

Actually, there is plenty of evidence – both in America and elsewhere – that higher cigarette taxes backfire.

I would be shocked if D.C. doesn’t create new evidence since avoidance is so easy.

…critics of the tax increase say the District is unique because of how easy it is to travel to neighboring Virginia, which has a 30-cent tax, and Maryland, with a $2 tax. “What person in their right mind is going to pay $9 or $10 for a pack of cigarettes when they can go to Virginia?” said Kirk McCauley of the WMDA Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, a regional association for gas stations. …Ronald Jackson, who declined to buy a loose cigarette from the BP parking lot, says he saves money with a quick drive to Maryland to buy five cartons of Newport 100s, the legal limit. “After they increased the price, I just go over the border,” said Jackson, a 56-year-old Southeast D.C. resident. “They are much cheaper.”

An under-appreciated aspect of this tax is how it encourages the underground economy.

Though I’m happy to see (especially remembering what happened to Eric Garner) that D.C. police have no interest in hindering black market sales.

The D.C. Council originally set aside money from the cigarette tax increase for two police officers to crack down on illegal sales outside of stores. But that funding was removed amid concerns about excessive enforcement and that it would strain police relations with the community. On a Tuesday morning, Choudhry, the owner of the Southeast BP, stopped a police officer who was filling up his motorcycle at the BP station to point out a group of men selling cigarettes in his parking lot. The officer drove off without action. …On a good day, he can pull about $70 in profit. “Would you rather that we rob or steal,” said Mike, who said he has spent 15 years in jail. “Or do you want us out here selling things?”

Kudos to Mike. I’m glad he’s engaging in voluntary exchange rather than robbing and stealing. Though maybe he got in trouble with the law in the first place because of voluntary exchange (a all-too-common problem for people in Washington).

But now let’s zoom out and return to our discussion about economics and taxation.

An under-appreciated point to consider is that deadweight loss grows geometrically larger as tax rates go up. In other words, you don’t just double damage when you double tax rates. The consequences are far more severe.

Here are two charts that were created for a chapter I co-authored in a book about demographics and capital taxation. This first chart shows how a $1 tax leads to 25-cents of deadweight loss.

But if the tax doubles to $2, the deadweight loss doesn’t just double.

In this hypothetical example, it rises to $1 from 25-cents.

For any given tax on any particular economic activity, the amount of deadweight loss will depend on both supply and demand sensitivities. Some taxes impose high costs. Others impose low costs.

But in all cases, the deadweight loss increases disproportionately fast as the tax rate is increased. And that has big implications for whether there should high tax rates on personal income and corporate income, as well as whether there should be heavy death taxes and harsh tax rates on capital gains, interest, and dividends.

Some of my left-wing friends shrug their shoulders because they assume that rich people bear the burden. But remember that the reduction of “consumer surplus” is a measure of the loss to taxpayers. The deadweight loss is the foregone output to society.

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During his final days in office, I gave a thumbs-down assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency. Simply stated, he increased the burden of government during his tenure, and that led to anemic economic numbers.

Now the economy seems to be doing a bit better, which is leading my friends on the left to make two impossible-to-reconcile claims.

  1. It is doing better, but Obama deserves credit.
  2. The economy isn’t doing better.

I’ve previously explained that the first argument doesn’t hold water. Today, let’s address the second argument.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former CEO Andy Puzder claims that Trump easily wins over Obama when you look at the numbers.

For eight years under President Obama, the growing burden of government suppressed the economic recovery that should have followed the recession of 2008-09. Mr. Obama nonetheless has claimed responsibility for today’s boom, asking Americans in September to “remember when this recovery started.” Yet it wasn’t until President Trump took office that the economy surged. …The result is a rising tide that is lifting boats across every class and region of the country. …Today unemployment rests at 3.7%, near a 50-year low. Since the government began reporting the data, unemployment has never been as low as it is today for African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and people with only a high-school education.

It’s certainly good news that unemployment rates have dropped. But labor-force participation numbers still haven’t fully recovered, or even come close to fully recovering, so the data on jobs is not quite as impressive as it sounds.

That being said, Puzder has a compelling indictment of Obama’s performance.

During a typical recovery, the economy grows at a rate between 3% and 4%, and the Obama administration predicted such a surge in its 2010 midsession review. It never came. The “recovery” of those years often felt much like a recession.

Amen. This echoes my criticism of Obamanomics. He made the U.S. a bit more like Europe, so it’s no surprise that growth was weak.

Let’s now look at Puzder’s evidence that Trump has done a better job. He compares the end of the Obama economy with the beginning of the Trump economy.

GDP growth staggered along at 1.5% in Mr. Obama’s final six full quarters in office. …growth doubled to 3% during Mr. Trump’s first six full quarters. …the increase in job openings over Mr. Trump’s first 21 months has averaged an impressive 75,000 a month. Over Mr. Obama’s last 21 months in office, the number of job openings increased an average of 900 a month. …During Mr. Obama’s last 21 months, the number of employed Americans increased an average of 157,000 a month. Under Mr. Trump, the increase has accelerated to 214,000 a month, a 36% improvement. …In Mr. Obama’s final 21 months, weekly earnings rose an average of $1.31 a month. Under Mr. Trump, weekly earnings have increased an average of $1.84 cents a month: a 40% improvement that’s come mostly since tax reform took effect in January. Over that period, weekly earnings have grown an average of $2.31 a month, a 76% increase over Mr. Obama’s last 21 months. …The unemployment rate declined 13% during Mr. Obama’s last 21 months, but from there it has dropped another 23% during Mr. Trump’s tenure.

All of this data is compelling, but I caution my GOP/Trump friends about relying on short-run economic data to make their case.

For instance, what if the economy is in a false boom caused by easy money? If that leads to a recession, will they want Trump to take the blame?

Or let’s consider a more tangible example. Trump and his supporters used to make a big deal out of rising stock prices, but that argument no longer appears to be very persuasive.

Let’s close with two charts that take different sides. The first one is from MSNBC, which makes a persuasive case that reductions in unemployment under Trump are simply a continuation of the trend.

On the other hand, this second chart, which comes from the White House, shows that economic outcomes are better than what the Obama Administration predicted.

This also is compelling data, and I’ve explained that even small improvements in economic performance are very desirable.

Though it remains to be seen whether this additional growth is either real or sustainable.

The bottom line is that there’s no reason to expect big economic improvements under Trump, at least in the long run. His good policies on taxes and regulation are offset by bad policies on spending and trade.

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