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Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

There’s an entire field of economics called “public choice” that analyzes the (largely perverse) incentive structures of politicians and bureaucrats.

But is economic analysis also helpful to understand voting and elections?

In the past, I’ve suggested that political betting markets are a useful place to start since “you are seeing estimates based on people defending their views with cold, hard cash.”

In his Bloomberg column, Professor Tyler Cowen takes a more rigorous look at the potential insights of political betting markets.

Prediction markets…are a quick way to get an overview of the state of the campaign. President Donald Trump is currently at about 0.40 to be re-elected… Under normal assumptions about the uncertainty of future economic growth, the markets rate Trump’s chances of winning at 40%. …it is a useful corrective to the argument that Trump is toast — or, alternatively, that he is a shoo-in.  The market incorporates the relevant uncertainties in both directions. (Interestingly, Trump’s re-election odds have stayed pretty steady over the last week or so of negative news.) In many cases, prediction markets…“see through” the day-to-day volatility that may buffet the polls but not affect the final outcome. …Prediction markets…also made me think that a possible Hillary Clinton candidacy…is perhaps an undercovered story. …It is not a valid criticism of prediction markets to say that they didn’t predict Trump, say, or Brexit. The purpose of prediction markets is not to foresee particular upsets. They can, however, tell you in advance what would be an upset — much like probability theory can tell you that getting three heads in a row is unlikely but is of no help in predicting exactly when it will happen.

There are also people who build models that predict elections based largely on economic factors.

The Washington Post just published a very interesting review of how three of these models show Trump comfortably winning.

President Trump is on a fast track to an easy reelection. That’s the conclusion reached by economic forecasters… Moody’s Analytics projects the president will win handily next year if the economy doesn’t badly stumble — and in fact, rack up a greater margin in the electoral college than the 304-to-227 victory he secured against Hillary Clinton in 2016. …The finding jibes with those of other forecasting models that rely on measures of the economy’s strength to predict which major party’s candidate will win the White House next. Oxford Economics sees Trump winning 55 percent of the popular vote next year barring a “significant downturn” in the economy. …by the reckoning of the firm’s model, three key economic indicators — unemployment, inflation and real disposable income growth — all favor Trump’s reelection. They outweigh a “negative exhaustion factor” with Trump that dents his support in the projection. …Another model, assembled by Trend Macrolytics, accurately predicts every presidential victor back to 1952 by focusing on the effects of the economy and incumbency on the electoral college, according to Donald Luskin, the firm’s chief investment officer. It projects Trump will win reelection next year with 354 electoral votes — a margin that seems staggering on its face.

Here’s the Moody’s electoral map, which doubtlessly will cause sleepless nights for the anti-Trump crowd.

Wow, not only do they show Trump winning every state he won in 2016, but they show him picking up New Hampshire, Virginia, and Minnesota.

So which approach is more accurate, betting markets of election models?

Given my inaccurate 2016 predictions, I’m probably not the right person to ask.

I’ll simply observe that both approaches have erred in the past.

And if you believe in guilt by association, some of the people who put together political prediction models also put together deeply flawed Keynesian economic models.

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Last year, I wrote a column that investigated why the left is fixated on the unequal distribution of income and wealth, yet doesn’t seem to care at all about unequal distribution of attractiveness.

The question becomes even more intriguing when you consider that attractiveness is oftentimes nothing more than luck, simply a matter of winning the genetic lottery.

People with lots of income and wealth, by contrast, generally work very hard to offer goods and services of value to society, so they actually earn their riches.

Let’s review some additional evidence about good luck for people with good looks.

The Economist shares data from a new book about the advantages enjoyed by attractive people.

Just why are pedestrians likelier (three times as likely, according to one study) to defy traffic laws to follow a man across the road when he is wearing a suit than the same man dressed in denim? Similarly motorists stuck at a traffic light are slower to honk their horn if the car in front has a prestige brand. …A further piece of research cited by the authors involved undergraduates who were shown photos of 50 chief executives from the Fortune 1000 list of big firms. Half of these bosses were from the most profitable groups and half from the least profitable. The undergraduates were asked to judge, on looks alone, which executives had qualities such as competence and dominance. Remarkably, the students tended to pick out those executives who led the most successful companies. …it seems more probable that people with a certain type of appearance are likely to get promoted than it is to believe they are innately more competent than everyone else. …When participants in a study were shown pictures of male employees of a business consultancy, with similar clothes and masked faces, they perceived the taller men more positively in terms of team leadership skills. Indeed, research has shown that taller and more attractive men earn more than their shorter and plainer colleagues. …Physical characteristics also affect recruitment at lower levels. A group of Italian researchers sent CVs to a range of employers, some with photos and some without. Applicants deemed attractive by independent scorers were 20% more likely to get an interview than the same application without a photo.

Being attractive doesn’t just help people get better jobs and earn more income.

Here’s some data that may be even more important to a lot of people.

This study was conducted to quantify the Tinder socio-economic prospects for males based on the percentage of females that will “like” them. Female Tinder usage data was collected and statistically analyzed to determine the inequality in the Tinder economy. It was determined that the bottom 80% of men (in terms of attractiveness) are competing for the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men. The Gini coefficient for the Tinder economy based on “like” percentages was calculated to be 0.58. This means that the Tinder economy has more inequality than 95.1% of all the world’s national economies. In addition, it was determined that a man of average attractiveness would be “liked” by approximately 0.87% (1 in 115) of women on Tinder.

Here’s a chart showing that only the most attractive men have an advantage on the hook-up site.

Here’s an explanation of the chart, as well as some discussion of how the system is wildly unequal.

The area in blue represents the situations where women are more likely to “like” the men. The area in pink represents the situations where men are more likely to “like” women. The curve doesn’t go down linearly, but instead drops quickly after the top 20% of men. Comparing the blue area and the pink area we can see that for a random female/male Tinder interaction the male is likely to “like” the female 6.2 times more often than the female “likes” the male. …the wealth distribution for males in the Tinder economy is quite large. Most females only “like” the most attractive guys. …Figure 3 compares the income Gini coefficient distribution for 162 nations and adds the Tinder economy to the list. …The Tinder economy has a higher Gini coefficient than 95.1% of the countries in the world.

And here’s the chart from the article showing how Tinder inequality compares to economic inequality among nations.

Regular guys don’t do very well and unattractive guys get the short end of the stick.

…the most attractive men will be liked by only approximately 20% of all the females on Tinder. …Unfortunately, this percentage decreases rapidly as you go down the attractiveness scale. According to this analysis a man of average attractiveness can only expect to be liked by slightly less than 1% of females (0.87%). This equates to 1 “like” for every 115 females. …The bad news is that if you aren’t in the very upper echelons of Tinder wealth (i.e. attractiveness) you aren’t likely to have much success.

Whether your goal is income/wealth or sex/relationships, the bottom line is that it helps to be attractive.

And being attractive is largely the result of luck. Which brings us back to the issue of why leftists don’t try to address this very meaningful form of inequality. Where are their plans to prevent discrimination against those of us who didn’t win the looks lottery? And to imposes taxes on those who wound up with favorable genes?

P.S. Libertarians are sometimes accused of being autistic dorks, and you don’t find many females at libertarian events, all of which presumably means male libertarians might benefit from government redistribution of dating partners. But we are moral and don’t favor government coercion and intervention, even when we might gain an advantage.

P.P.S. Here’s what would happen if Elizabeth Warren applied her class-warfare approach to dating.

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In addition to being a contest over expanding the burden of government spending, the Democratic primary also is a contest to see who wants the biggest tax increases.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have made class-warfare taxation an integral part of their campaigns, but even some of the supposedly reasonable Democrats are pushing big increases in tax rates.

James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute opines about the anti-growth effect of these proposed tax hikes, particularly with regard to entrepreneurship and successful new firms.

The Democratic presidential candidates have plenty of ideas about taxes. Wealth taxes. Wall Street taxes. Inequality taxes. And probably more to come. So lots of creative thinking about wealth redistribution. Wealth creation? Not so much. …one way to look at boosting GDP growth is thinking about specific policies to boost labor force and productivity growth. But there’s another way of approaching the issue: How many fast-growing growing new firms would need to be generated each year to lift the economy-wide growth rate each year by one percent? …a rough calculation by analyst Robert Litan figures there about 15 billion-dollar (in sales) companies formed every year. But what if the American entrepreneurial ecosystem were so vibrant that it produced 60 such companies annually? …The big point here is that the American private sector is key to growth. No other large economy is as proficient as the US in creating high-impact startups. But it doesn’t appear that the Democratic enthusiasm for big and bold tax plans is matched by concern about unwanted trade-offs.

If you want a substantive economic critique of class-warfare tax policy, Alan Reynolds has a must-read article on the topic.

He starts by explaining why it’s important to measure how sensitive taxpayers are (the “elasticity of taxable income”) to changes in tax rates.

Elasticity of taxable income estimates are simply a relatively new summary statistic used to illustrate observed behavioral responses to past variations in marginal tax rates. They do so by examining what happened to the amount of income reported on individual tax returns, in total and at different levels of income, before and after major tax changes. …For example, if a reduced marginal tax rate produces a substantial increase in the amount of taxable income reported to the IRS, the elasticity of taxable income is high. If not, the elasticity is low. ETI incorporates effects of tax avoidance as well as effects on incentives for productive activity such as work effort, research, new business start-ups, and investment in physical and human capital.

Alan then looks at some of the ETI estimates and what they imply for tax rates, though he notes that the revenue-maximizing rate is not the optimal rate.

Diamond and Saez claim that, if the relevant ETI is 0.25, then the revenue-maximizing top tax rate is 73 percent. Such estimates, however, do not refer to the top federal income tax rate, …but to the combined marginal rate on income, payrolls, and sales at the federal, state, and local level. …with empirically credible changes in parameters, the Diamond-Saez formula can more easily be used to show that top U.S. federal, state, and local tax rates are already too high rather than too low. By also incorporating dynamic effects — such as incentives to invest in human capital and new ideas — more recent models estimate that the long-term revenue-maximizing top tax rate is between 22 and 49 percent… Elasticity of taxable, or perhaps gross income…can be “a sufficient statistic to approximate the deadweight loss” from tax disincentives and distortions. Although recent studies define revenue-maximization as “optimal,” Goolsbee…rightly emphasizes, “The fact that efficiency costs rise with the square of the tax rate are likely to make the optimal rate well below the revenue-maximizing rate.”

These excerpts only scratch the surface.

Alan’s article extensively discusses how high-income taxpayers are especially sensitive to high tax rates, in part because they have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

He also reviews the empirical evidence from major shifts in tax rates last century.

All told, his article is a devastating take-down of the left-of-center economists who have tried to justify extortionary tax rates. Simply stated, high tax rates hinder the economy, create deadweight loss, and don’t produce revenue windfalls.

That being said, I wonder whether his article will have any impact. As Kevin Williamson points out is a column for National Review, the left isn’t primarily motivated by a desire for more tax money.

Perhaps the strangest utterance of Barack Obama’s career in public office…was his 2008 claim that raising taxes on the wealthy is a moral imperative, even if the tax increase in question ended up reducing overall federal revenue. Which is to say, Obama argued that it did not matter whether a tax increase hurt the Treasury, so long as it also hurt, at least in theory and on paper, certain wealthy people. …ideally, you want a tax system with low transaction costs (meaning a low cost of compliance) and one that doesn’t distort a lot of economic activity. You want to get enough money to fund your government programs with as little disruption to life as possible. …Punitive taxes aren’t about the taxes — they’re about the punishment. That taxation should have been converted from a technical question into a moral crusade speaks to the basic failure of the progressive enterprise in the United States…the progressive demand for a Scandinavian welfare state at no cost to anybody they care about…ends up being a very difficult equation to balance, probably an impossible one. And when the numbers don’t work, there’s always cheap moralistic histrionics.

So what leads our friends on the left to pursue such misguided policies? What drives their support for punitive taxation?

Is is that they’re overflowing with compassion and concern for the poor?

Hardly.

Writing for the Federalist, Emily Ekins shares some in-depth polling data that discovers that envy is the real motive.

Supporters often contend their motivation is compassion for the dispossessed… In a new study, I examine…competing explanations and ask whether envy and resentment of the successful or compassion for the needy better explain support for socialism, raising taxes on the rich, redistribution, and the like. …Statistical tests reveal resentment of the successful has about twice the effect of compassion in predicting support for increasing top marginal tax rates, wealth redistribution, hostility to capitalism, and believing billionaires should not exist. …people who agree that “very successful people sometimes need to be brought down a peg or two even if they’ve done nothing wrong” were more likely to want to raise taxes on the rich than people who agree that “I suffer from others’ sorrows.” …I ran another series of statistical tests to investigate the motivations behind the following beliefs: 1) It’s immoral for our system to allow the creation of billionaires, 2) billionaires threaten democracy, and 3) the distribution of wealth in the United States is “unjust.” Again, the statistical tests find that resentment against successful people is more influential than compassion in predicting each of these three beliefs. In fact, not only is resentment more impactful, but compassionate people are significantly less likely to agree that it’s immoral for our system to allow people to become billionaires.

Here’s one of her charts, showing that resentment is far and away the biggest driver of support for class-warfare proposals.

These numbers are quite depressing.

They suggest that no amount of factual analysis or hard data will have any effect on the debate.

And there is polling data to back up Emily’s statistical analysis. Heck, some folks on the left openly assert that envy should be the basis for tax policy.

In other words, Deroy Murdock and Margaret Thatcher weren’t creating imaginary enemies.

P.S. If you think Kevin Williamson was somehow mischaracterizing or exaggerating Obama’s spiteful position on tax policy, just watch this video.

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The New York Times is going overboard with disingenuous columns.

A few days ago, I pointed out the many errors in David Leonhardt’s column extolling the wealth tax.

I also explained back in August how Steven Greenhouse butchered the data when he condemned the American economy.

And Paul Krugman is infamous for his creative writing.

But Mr. Leonhardt is on a roll. He has a new column promoting class warfare tax policy.

Almost a decade ago, Warren Buffett made a claim that would become famous. He said that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary, thanks to the many loopholes and deductions that benefit the wealthy.oct-8-19-nyt …“Is it the norm?” the fact-checking outfit Politifact asked. “No.” Time for an update: It’s the norm now. …the 400 wealthiest Americans last year paid a lower total tax rate — spanning federal, state and local taxes — than any other income group, according to newly released data. …That’s a sharp change from the 1950s and 1960s, when the wealthy paid vastly higher tax rates than the middle class or poor.

Here’s the supposed proof for Leonhardt’s claim, which is based on a new book from two professors at the University of California at Berkeley, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

Here are the tax rates from 1950.

oct-8-19-1950

And here are the tax rates from last year, showing the combined effect of the Kennedy tax cut, the Reagan tax cuts, the Bush tax cuts, and the Trump tax cut (as well as the Nixon tax increase, the Clinton tax increase, and the Obama tax increase).

oct-8-19-2018

So is Leonhardt (channeling Saez and Zucman) correct?

Are these charts evidence of a horrid and unfair system?

Nope, not in the slightest.

But this data is evidence of dodgy analysis by Leonhardt and the people he cites.

First and foremost, the charts conveniently omit the fact that dividends and capital gains earned by high-income taxpayers also are subject to the corporate income tax.

Even the left-leaning Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development acknowledges that both layers of tax should be included when measuring the effective tax rate on households.

Indeed, this is why Warren Buffett was grossly wrong when claiming he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary.

But there’s also another big problem. There’s a huge difference between high tax rates and high tax revenues.

feb-4-19-perrySimply stated, the rich didn’t pay a lot of tax when rates were extortionary because they can choose not to earn and declare much income.

Indeed, there were only eight taxpayers in 1960 who paid the top tax rates of 91 percent.

Today, by contrast, upper-income taxpayers are paying an overwhelming share of the tax burden.

It’s especially worth noting that tax collections from the rich skyrocketed when Reagan slashed the top tax rate in the 1980s.

Let’s close by pointing out that Saez and Zucman are promoting a very radical tax agenda.

Saez and Zucman sketch out a modern progressive tax code. The overall tax rate on the richest 1 percent would roughly double, to about 60 percent. The tax increases would bring in about $750 billion a year, or 4 percent of G.D.P…. One crucial part of the agenda is a minimum global corporate tax of at least 25 percent. …Saez and Zucman also favor a wealth tax

Punitive income tax rates, higher corporate tax rates, and a confiscatory wealth tax.

Does anybody think copying France is a recipe for success?

P.S. I pointed out that Zucman and Saez make some untenable assumptions when trying to justify how a wealth tax won’t hurt the economy.

P.P.S. It’s also worth remembering that the income of rich taxpayers will be subject to the death tax as well, which means Leonhardt’s charts are doubly misleading.

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Last century, I remember reading about the “Washington Consensus,” which was a term that was used to describe the kind of policy advice in those days provided to (or imposed upon) the developing world by the IMF, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury.

I never studied the topic since I was focused at the time on domestic issues such as tax reform, Social Security reform, and the economic effect of government spending.

But I recall thinking that the Washington Consensus was pro-market, but nonetheless a bit timid because it did not include a plank to limit the size of government.

Wikipedia helpfully lists the 10 policies that defined this consensus.

  1. Fiscal policy discipline, with avoidance of large fiscal deficits relative to GDP;
  2. Redirection of public spending from subsidies (“especially indiscriminate subsidies”) toward broad-based provision of key pro-growth, pro-poor services like primary education, primary health care and infrastructure investment;
  3. Tax reform, broadening the tax base and adopting moderate marginal tax rates;
  4. Interest rates that are market determined and positive (but moderate) in real terms;
  5. Competitive exchange rates;
  6. Trade liberalization: liberalization of imports, with particular emphasis on elimination of quantitative restrictions (licensing, etc.); any trade protection to be provided by low and relatively uniform tariffs;
  7. Liberalization of inward foreign direct investment;
  8. Privatization of state enterprises;
  9. Deregulation: abolition of regulations that impede market entry or restrict competition, except for those justified on safety, environmental and consumer protection grounds, and prudential oversight of financial institutions;
  10. Legal security for property rights.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now want to praise the Washington Consensus.

Yes, it would be nice if there had been some focus on the size of government, but all of the advice on trade, regulation, monetary policy, and quality of governance was very sound. And those policies account for 80 percent of a nation’s grade according to Economic Freedom of the World.

Moreover, the planks on fiscal policy were good, even if they didn’t go far enough.

Additionally, it was good to have multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank using their leverage to push for pro-market reforms (unlike today, when international bureaucracies often push a statist agenda).

So what was the effect of – to use the terms of opponents – this emphasis on “neoliberalism” or “market fundamentalism”?

Well, it seems to have made a difference. Here the data from the Fraser Institute on economic freedom for all nations. As you can see, economic liberty around the world increased significantly between 1980-2000, the years when the Washington Consensus was most influential.

But did that period of pro-market reform lead to better outcomes?

The answer is a resounding yes, at least in my humble opinion.

Here’s the most persuasive evidence, showing the dramatic decline in extreme poverty.

Let’s also look at some new research from Professor William Easterly, who worked for many years as an economist at the World Bank.

He notes that many people think the Washington Consensus was a failure. So he took a fresh look at the data.

Many authors…have proclaimed the failure of a package of market-oriented reforms proposed in the 1980s and 1990s — variously known as the Washington Consensus, …globalization, or neoliberalism. This paper seeks to update the stylized facts on policies and growth that influenced this verdict. …The earlier stylized facts featured the zero or low per capita growth in the regions that were the focus of reform: Africa and Latin America. …these stylized facts have not been updated in the literature, as much more data have become available with the passage of time. …This paper will report new stylized facts. First, there has been additional and quite remarkable progress on reform outcomes since the late 1990s — this is a principal finding of this paper. Earlier judgments on the reforms often happened before the reform process was complete and/or had enough post-reform growth data to evaluate reforms. …The second stylized fact is that there is a strong correlation between improvements in policy outcomes and changes in growth outcomes. The third stylized fact is that growth has recovered in Africa and Latin America in the new millennium, and the regression of growth on policy outcomes explains a substantial part of the growth recovery. …This paper will extend the method of analyzing extremely bad and moderately bad policy outcomes to other policies, specifically — in addition to inflation — the black market premium on foreign exchange, overvaluation of the domestic currency, negative real interest rates on bank savings deposits, and abnormally low trade shares to GDP. Updating the data on these outcomes is not trivial and constitutes one of the main contributions of this paper.

And what did Prof. Easterly discover?

It turns out that the prevalence of bad outcomes has declined.

Figure 6 shows a summary measure of share of countries with any bad policy. Any bad policy is defined as having any of the moderate or extreme policy dummies set to one, with a minimum of 4 policy observations available for that country-year. The summary measure shows a downward trend in bad policy outcomes worldwide, in Latin America, and in Sub-Saharan Africa. The sharpest break is around the mid-1990s, somewhat after the formulation of the Washington Consensus and the first negative reactions it received.

Here’s the aforementioned Figure 6.

And he also looks at the prevalence of extremely bad poliicy.

Figure 7 shows a similar graph to Figure 6, but now limited to extremely bad policy outcomes. It shows if any of the extremely bad policy dummies is set to one, for the sample with a minimum of at least two out of five policy outcomes available. The decline in the prevalence of any extreme policy is even more dramatic beginning in the early 1990s, going from surprisingly common (above 35 percent of countries up to the early 1990s) to almost non-existent for the world. The same pattern is even more striking for Africa and for Latin America.

Here’s Figure 7.

Most important, these better outcomes also are associated with stronger growth.

This paper showed these changes in policy outcomes – especially away from extreme policies — were accompanied by growth increases. It documented that the policy reforms can explain the growth increases in the regions most emphasized earlier – Africa and Latin America. We have seen that the old data available through 1998 was indeed consistent with the reform pessimism, partly because of weaker results on growth payoffs associated with reform outcomes and partly because less reform had happened.

Prof. Easterly acknowledges that there are still many issues to investigate and that his research is just one slice at a big pie.

But the bottom line is that we now have some good evidence that the Washington Consensus led to better results. Simply stated, capitalism produces more growth and less poverty. Too bad the IMF and other international bureaucracies have forgotten this lesson.

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I sometimes mock the New York Times for dodgy and inaccurate writing about economics.

Though, to be fair, the paper has many sound journalists who do a good job, so I should be more careful about explaining that the mistakes are the result of specific reporters and columnists.

Paul Krugman is an obvious example.

And we should add David Leonhardt to the list. He actually claims that imposing a wealth tax and confiscating private capital can lead to more growth.

There are two problems with the arguments from these opponents. First, they’re based on a premise that the American economy is doing just fine and we shouldn’t mess with success. …Second, …it’s also plausible that a wealth tax would accelerate economic growth. …A large portion of society’s resources are held by a tiny slice of people, who aren’t using the resources very efficiently. …Sure, it’s theoretically possible that some entrepreneurs and investors might work less hard… But it’s more likely that any such effect would be small — and more than outweighed by the return that the economy would get on the programs that a wealth tax would finance, like education, scientific research, infrastructure and more.

Wow. It’s rare to see so much inaccuracy in so few words.

Let’s review his arguments.

His first claim is utter nonsense. I’ve been following the debate over the wealth tax for years, and I’ve never run across a critic who argued that the wealth tax is a bad idea because the economy is “doing just fine.”

Instead, critics invariably explain that the tax is a bad idea because it would exacerbate the tax code’s bias against saving and investment and thus have a negative effect on jobs, wages, productivity, and competitiveness.

And those arguments are true and relevant whether the economy is booming, in a recession, or somewhere in between.

His second claim is equally absurd. He wants readers to believe that government spending is good for growth and that those benefits will more than offset the economic harm from the punitive tax.

To be fair, at least this is not a make-believe argument. Left-leaning bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have been pushing this idea in recent years. They use phrases such as “resource mobilization” and “financing for development” to argue that higher taxes will lead to more growth because governments somehow will use money wisely.

Needless to say, that’s a preposterous, anti-empirical assertion. Especially when dealing with a tax that would do lots of damage on a per-dollar-collected basis.

Interestingly, a news report in the New York Times had a much more rational assessment, largely focusing on the degree of damage such a tax would cause.

Progressive Democrats are advocating the most drastic shift in tax policy in over a century as they look to redistribute wealth…with new taxes that could fundamentally reshape the United States economy. …Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont have proposed wealth taxes that would shrink the fortunes of the richest Americans. Their plans envision an enormous transfer of money from the wealthy… the idea of redistributing wealth by targeting billionaires is stirring fierce debates at the highest ranks of academia and business, with opponents arguing it would cripple economic growth, sap the motivation of entrepreneurs who aspire to be multimillionaires and set off a search for loopholes. …At a conference sponsored by the Brookings Institution in September, N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economist, …offered a searing critique, arguing that a wealth tax would skew incentives that could alter when the superrich make investments, how they give to charity and even potentially spur a wave of divorces for tax purposes. He also noted that billionaires, with their legions of lawyers and accountants, have proven to be experts at gaming the system to avoid even the most onerous taxes. …“On the one hand it’s a bad policy, and then the other thing is it’s a feckless policy,” Mr. Mankiw said. Left-leaning economists have expressed their own doubts about a wealth tax. Earlier this year, Lawrence Summers, who was President Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, warned…that wealth taxes would sap innovation by putting new burdens on entrepreneurial businesses while they are starting up. In their view, a country with more millionaires is a sign of economic vibrancy.

This is an example of good reporting. It cited supporters and opponents and fairly represented their arguments.

Readers learn that the real debate is over the magnitude of economic harm.

Speaking of which, a Bloomberg column explains how much money might get siphoned from the private economy if a wealth tax is imposed.

Billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett could have collectively lost hundreds of billions of dollars in net worth over decades if presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax plan had been in effect — and they had done nothing to avoid it. That’s according to calculations in a new paper by two French economists, who helped her devise the proposed tax on the wealthiest Americans. The top 15 richest Americans would have seen their net worth decline by more than half to $433.9 billion had Warren’s plan been in place since 1982, according to the paper by University of California, Berkeley professors Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. …The calculations underscore how a wealth tax of just a few percentage points might erode fortunes over time.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the article.

What matters to the economy, though, is not the amount of wealth owned by individual entrepreneurs.

Instead, it’s the amount of saving and investment (i.e., the stock of capital) in the economy.

A wealth tax is bad news because it diverts capital from the private sector and transfers it to Washington where politicians will squander the funds (notwithstanding David Leonhardt’s fanciful hopes).

So I decided to edit the Bloomberg chart so that is gives us an idea of how the economy will be impacted.

The bottom line is that wealth taxation would be very harmful to America’s economy.

P.S. Several years ago, bureaucrats at the IMF tried to argue that a wealth tax wouldn’t damage growth if two impossible conditions were satisfied: 1) It was a total surprise, and 2) It was only imposed one time.

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Today, October 1, is the 70th anniversary of communists seizing power in China.

Given the horrible consequences of Mao’s rule, including tens of millions of deaths from famine and tyranny, this tweet from President Trump seems rather inappropriate.

That being said, it’s also worth pointing that today’s China is far better than Mao’s China.

Simply stated, it’s no longer a communist nation, at least in the sense that there’s been a decent amount of economic liberalization (starting in a small village in 1979).

China is now ranked #113 by Economic Freedom of the World. That’s definitely not anything to cheer about, but its score of 6.42 is way higher than the 3.59 of 1980.

And, for what it’s worth, China is currently ranked higher than Kuwait (#114), Brazil (#120), Ukraine (#135), and Pakistan (#136). And none of those are considered communist nations.

This isn’t merely my opinion.

In an article for Project Syndicate, Zhang Jun explains that a shift toward capitalism – even if only partial – explains what China has enjoyed impressive growth.

The rise of China is widely attributed to its state capitalism, whereby the government, endowed with huge assets, can pursue a wide-ranging industrial policy and intervene to mitigate risks. Accordingly, China owes its success, first and foremost, to the government’s “control” over the entire economy. This explanation is fundamentally wrong. …China is using its long-term planning and robust implementation capacity not to entrench state capitalism, but rather to advance economic liberalization and structural reform. It is this long-term strategy – which has remained unswerving, despite some stumbles and short-term deviations – that lies at the heart of the country’s decades-long run of rapid economic growth. …this process of economic liberalization and structural reform is also uniquely Chinese, insofar as it has emphasized local-level competition and experimentation… The result is a kind of de facto fiscal federalism – and a powerful driver of economic transformation. …China has traveled far along the path of reform and opening up. But it should not underestimate the challenges ahead, let alone forget how it got this far in the first place.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Crazy Bernie hasn’t learned from this experience.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the Wall Street Journal by Joshua Muravchik.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s praise for the government of China should raise eyebrows… In an interview last month with the Hill, Mr. Sanders…asserted that “what we have to say about China, in fairness to China and its leadership, is . . . they have made more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization.” …Mr. Sanders’s comment about China has a basis in fact. According to the World Bank, 88% of Chinese lived on less than $1.90 a day in 1981. Today less than 1% do. (These figures are in 2011 dollars, adjusted for purchasing power parity.) Yet that success didn’t come from socialism. It’s a product of China’s move away from socialism. And it came at the cost—at least by Mr. Sanders’s usual lights—of heightened inequality. …Mr. Sanders urges a “political revolution” and a “wholesale transformation of our society” from capitalism to socialism—the reverse of what China did 40 years ago. …Yet Mr. Sanders’s accurate observation about China’s record in ending poverty ought to give him pause. Mao Zedong’s China was the apotheosis of class warfare…and shared poverty (except Mao himself, who lived like royalty with a few of his cohorts). …the core difference between socialism, which focuses on how to distribute wealth, and capitalism, which is concerned primarily with how to produce it. China’s experience teaches anew that the latter is more important than the former, for the poor as well as the rich.

But what about the future? Is China on a reform trajectory?

There’s no way to answer that question with any certainty, but there are some worrisome signs.

Here’s a tweet from a journalist for the Economist (hopefully he has more sense than some of his colleagues). It shows a shift toward more state-driven investment.

I’m not sure if we’re seeing a trend of a blip.

But I am sure that much more reform is needed. One area is the “hukou” system, which Leo Austin describes in an article for CapX.

China has had a ‘hukou’ (or similar) household registration system…, which identifies and determines the rightful home of each individual, the place where they enjoy state education and medical services. If you are very lucky this is Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Shenzhen. …But for most people it is a rural county. …It is very difficult for the children of rural migrants to graduate from an urban school… The hukou system has led to a long history of wage suppression in China. Compared to its Asian neighbours, wages in China have historically been much lower than they should be at the same level of GDP. …People weren’t free to move to where the best jobs were. The huge state enterprises in their hometowns provided free education and free medical services, but they didn’t have to compete for workers and they didn’t have to pay the best wages. …If you look at consumption as a share of GDP and compare China to the other Asian Tigers, by 2016 China was consuming 20% less than Japan and 30% less than Korea did at the same level of development.

And China also is being held back by the politicized allocation of capital.

Resources go to the wrong people. State owned enterprises represent maybe a third of GDP in China today, but they still received around 82% of all the corporate bank loans in 2018, at least in the legal banking system. The money is not invested wisely. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, for the nearly 300 non-financial state owned enterprises (SOE) listed in China, returns on equity fell by half in the loose-money boom years between 2007 and 2017. Over the same period, the return on equity for comparable US and European companies rose – ending more than double the level of Chinese SOEs. All this has a serious impact on productivity – as Conference Board research shows, China’s Total Factor Productivity for the period 2013 to 2018 was negative.  In most economies, productivity improvements drive GDP growth every year in the absence of population or capital growth. In China, productivity was a drag on growth… China cannot be a true competitor to the US until it allows merit and innovation to allocate capital and rewards. An economy built on wage suppression and state investment can be large, but it cannot be competitive in the long-term. …Unless the state retreats, it may yet bankrupt the country.

My two cents is that state-directed investment is a big problem, and it is an indirect cause of bad trade relations with the rest of the world.

Let’s wrap up with a look at the history of economic freedom in China.

As you can see, there was a big improvement from 1980-2000, then very incremental improvements this century.

The good news is that China continues to move in the right direction.

The bad news is that the pace of reform is very slow.

And the big worry is that China’s score could move in the wrong direction. Especially with policies that exacerbate the nation’s debt problem.

P.S. What happens with Hong Kong is a wild card. Hopefully, Beijing will resist any temptation to intervene.

P.P.S. China definitely needs to ignore the horrible advice it’s getting from the IMF and OECD. It should also ignore the New York Times.

P.P.P.S. If nothing else, China shows us why policy makers should focus on growth rather than equality.

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