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Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Okay, I’ll admit right away that the title of this column is an exaggeration.

But if you’re a public policy wonk and you worry about the rising level of government dependency and the erosion of self reliance, then you’ll understand why the chart below, which was presented earlier today at the Copenhagen conference of the Free Market Road Show, is so disturbing.

It was part of a presentation by Anders Krab-Johansen, the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Børsen, which is the leading business newspaper in Denmark. It shows his nation’s dependency ratio, and it reveals that the number of people getting money from the government has more than doubled while the number of people in the economy’s productive sector is stagnant.

It’s very hard to be optimistic about Denmark given the trend line (and, please, no complaints about Mr. Krab-Johansen writing “of” instead of “off” since his English proficiency is 99 percent, which is far above my 0.0 percent Danish proficiency).

No wonder my Danish friend, Mads Lundby Hansen of the Center for Politiske Studier (CEPOS), put together the “party boat” to show that far too many of his countrymen are living off the labor of an ever-shrinking number of producers in the private sector.

It seems that “Lazy Robert” has lots of company.

You won’t be surprised to learn that a massive level of dependency necessarily means an onerous burden of government spending.

In his presentation, Mr. Krab-Johansen shared this chart looking at consumption spending by governments in the developed world.

For further elaboration, there are different types of government spending,

Spending on core public goods, such as provision of the rule of law, is associated with good economic performance.

Other types of government spending, such as outlays for physical capital and human capital, have a mixed record. Some of the spending on things like roads and education is productive, but some of it is wasteful and counterproductive.

The bulk of government spending, however, is for transfers and consumption, and those outlays are associated with weaker economic performance.

The bottom line is that it’s a very bad sign for Denmark to have the developed world’s second-highest burden of public consumption outlays.

And if there’s an excessive burden of government spending, you won’t be surprised to learn that the tax burden is onerous.

I’ve previously joked that the tax system is so onerous that birthers should accuse Obama of being born in Denmark.

So it’s no surprise that business entrepreneurs identified tax-related issues as being two of their three biggest challenges.

 

It’s also worth noting that bureaucracy and regulation also are listed as problems.

P.S. This set of cartoons is the American version of Denmark’s party boat.

P.P.S. If anyone cares, my speech at the Copenhagen conference focused on the importance of policies that enable labor, capital, and entrepreneurship to generate economic growth.

P.P.P.S. I don’t want to leave readers with a totally grim perspective on Denmark. Yes, the fiscal burden is terrible, but the country actually is very free market in other areas. And the government is even taking some modest steps to reduce dependency, so policy makers realize there’s a problem.

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The standard argument against an easy-money policy is that it creates distortions in an economy that lead to either rapid increases in the price level, like we endured in the 1970s, or unsustainable asset bubbles, like we experienced last decade.

Those arguments are completely valid, but they only tell part of the story.

Central banks also should be criticized because “quantitative easing” and “zero interest rate policies” create major imbalances in capital markets.

A major new study from Swiss Re quantifies the damage to savers. Here are some excerpts from a CNBC report.

The Federal Reserve’s efforts to stimulate the U.S. economy after the financial crisis ended up costing savers nearly half a trillion dollars in interest income, according to report released Thursday. Since the central bank dropped interest rates to near zero at the end of 2008, savers have labored under plain-vanilla bank accounts and money market funds that have yielded close to nothing. …In a landmark report, Swiss Re quantifies just how much savers and others have languished… The reinsurance firm put the number at $470 billion in the 2008-13 period studied, so the number is likely even higher now. …”the impact of foregone interest income for households and long-term investors has become substantial.” …Swiss Re said the “financial repression” has taken its toll not only on savers but also on some areas of investing.

Here’s a chart from the Swiss Re report. As you can see, an easy-money policy is a massive tool for redistribution, with savers being hurt and government being subsidized.

Indeed, Swiss Re actually calculates a “financial repression index.”

Financial repression reflects the ability of policymakers to direct funds to themselves that would otherwise go elsewhere.

And the level of this repression has been at record highs in recent years.

It is true that some households benefit from easy money and artificially low interest rates. Their debt expenses have been reduced and they also are enjoying higher asset values.

But those benefits may be fleeting if the end result is a bubble that bursts, as happened in 2008.

Writing for the Washington Times, my Cato colleague Richard Rahn agrees that central banks are hurting savers, but he augments this analysis by making the very important point that easy-money policies simply don’t work.

Government economic policymakers have been trying to solve a problem of too much government spending, taxing and regulation by inappropriately using monetary policy, which has not and cannot solve the fundamental problems (it is like using a hammer rather than a shovel to dig a hole). The major central banks have been holding down interest rates, which is actually a massive indirect tax levied on the world’s savers. Historically, savers would receive about 3 percent interest above the rate of inflation on their safest investments, but now interest rates often do not cover even the low inflation that is occurring in the developed countries. …Many economists expected savers to save less and consume more as a result of low or even negative interest rates… When businesses and individuals look at the world debt situation and the increased chances of another financial collapse, their rational response is to increase “precautionary” savings, even though they are not receiving interest on them.

So the bottom line is that central banks are engaging in “financial repression” today and creating risks of price instability and/or asset bubbles tomorrow.

But there’s no compensating benefit to make all these costs (and future risks) worthwhile.

That’s not a good deal.

So what’s the alternative?

In the short run, the best hope is that central bankers, including the ones at the Federal Reserve, will take their feet off the figurative gas pedal and follow some sort of monetary rule that precludes destructive intervention.

In the long run, the ideal answer would be a return to market-provided private currencies. This isn’t just silly libertarian fantasy. There actually have been countries that successfully used this “free banking” approach.

Professor Larry White has a must-read historical review of what happened before governments monopolized currency issue.

When we look into these episodes, we find a record of innovation, improvement, and success at serving money-users. As in other goods and services, competition provided the public with improved products at better prices. The least regulated systems were not only the most competitive but also by and large the least crisis-prone. …the record of these historical free banking systems, “most if not all can be considered as reasonably successful, sometimes quite remarkably so.”…Those systems of plural note issue that were panic prone, like those of pre-1913 United States and pre-1832 England, were not so because of competition but because of legal restrictions that significantly weakened banks. Where free banking was given a reasonable trial, for example in Scotland and Canada, it functioned well for the typical user of money and banking services.

The history of central banking, by contrast, is not nearly as successful. There’s been massive erosion in the value of money and central banks are largely responsible for the boom-bust cycle that has afflicted many economies.

At this point, you may be wondering why central banking triumphed over free banking if the latter is so superior.

The answer is simple. As Professor White explains, look at what’s in the best interest of the political elite.

Free banking often ended because the imposition of heavy legal restrictions or creation of a privileged central bank offered revenue advantages to politically influential interests. The legislature or the Treasury can tap a central bank for cheap credit, or (under a fiat standard) simply have the central bank pay the government’s bills by issuing new money. …Central banks primarily arose, directly or indirectly, from legislation that created privileges to promote the fiscal interests of the state or the rent-seeking interests of privileged bankers, not from market forces.

In other words, a system of competitive currencies is perfectly plausible, but it’s not in the interest of politicians (just as having no income tax is plausible, but also not in the interest of politicians).

For more information on free banking, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Professor White also has a good video explaining why a central bank isn’t needed.

P.S. For those of you who like the gold standard, Professor George Selgin (now head of Cato’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives) has some major concerns (at least if the government is in charge of it).

P.P.S. Don’t forget that the Federal Reserve also imposes a lot of costly regulation on the financial sector.

P.P.P.S. Thomas Sowell has some wise observations on why we shouldn’t grant more power to the Fed and John Stossel explains why monetary competition would be good.

P.P.P.P.S. To end with some humor, here’s the famous “Ben Bernank” video. And if that doesn’t exhaust your interest in the topic, here’s a snarky cartoon video mocking the Fed and another video with 10 reasons to dislike the Fed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A nation’s prosperity is determined by the quantity and quality of labor and capital that are productively utilized.

Which means that it doesn’t make sense to have policies that penalize either saving and investment or working.

Yet that seems to be the favorite hobby of the political class.

And there are real consequences. A new study by a pair of economists, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, has some interesting findings on the link between redistribution programs and labor supply.

It’s a bit wonky, given the way academics write, but they produce some important data on the negative unintended consequences of government dependency.

…we find that the decline in desire to work since the mid-90s lowered the unemployment rate by about 0.5 ppt and the participation rate by 1.75 ppt. This is a large effect… Our estimates imply that changes in the provision of welfare and social insurance (notably disability insurance) explain about 50 percent of the decline in desire to work, which suggest a possible role for the major welfare reforms of the 90s – the 1993 Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expansion and the 1996 reform of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program…the possibility that changes in the provision of social transfers can affect desire to work and thereby the aggregate unemployment and participation rates echoes Juhn, Murphy and Topel (2002) and Autor and Dugan (2003) who argue that the growing attractiveness of disability benefits relative to work increased the number of individuals outside the labor force. …Most strikingly, receiving…disability insurance substantially reduces the probability to want to work by 17 percentage points (ppt), consistent with the fact that an impairment should preclude any work activity and thus lower desire to work.

The authors openly warn that it’s difficult to separate out the effects of various redistribution programs.

The mid-1990s welfare reform apparently helped labor supply by pushing recipients to get a job.

Disability programs, by contrast, strongly discourage productive behavior, while wage subsidies such as the earned-income credit ostensibly encourage work but also can discourage workforce participation for secondary earners in a household.

Here are more of their findings.

…the Earned-Income Tax Credit (EITC) program, a program aimed at o§setting the social security payroll tax for low-income families with children, was expanded in order to encourage work effort (Rothstein and Nichols, 2014). …After controlling for characteristics, we find that the EITC explains 71 percent of the decline in low-educated married mothers’ desire to work between 1988-1993 and 1994-2010. …While the “welfare to work” reform was designed to do bring welfare recipients into the labor force, the reform could have had the opposite effect on the “weaker” nonparticipants by shifting them from a program with some connection to the labor force (welfare) to a program with no connection to the labor force (disability insurance). …Our cross-sectional estimates imply that changes in the provision of welfare and social insurance explain about 60 percent of the decline in desire to work among prime-age females, while the difference-in-difference estimates attribute between 50 and 70 percent of the decline in mothers’ desire to work to the welfare reforms. We conjecture that two mechanisms could explain these results. First, the EITC expansion raised family income and reduced secondary earners’ (typically women) incentives to work.

For non-academic readers, these two charts from the NBER study will be easier to understand.

The first chart shows what should be good news. Welfare reforms in the 1990s led to a big drop in dependency.

But now it’s time for the bad news.

Welfare reform reduced one type of dependency, but other redistribution programs have ballooned.

So no wonder there’s now research showing unfortunate results.

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, John Merline addresses the same issue, but looking at different redistribution programs.

…the share of 25- to 54-year-olds who are active in the labor market has steadily fallen, to the point where just over 80% of this age group is either working or looking for work. …University of Chicago economics professor Casey Mulligan…posits that the root cause was an attempt by Congress to help people displaced by the recession. Democrats who controlled Congress at the time made several changes to anti-poverty subsidies, adding things like mortgage assistance programs, the benefits of which are phased out as income rises. ObamaCare provides still another one, by offering insurance subsidies that also phase out. …these programs…add to what is already a steep effective marginal tax rate for those in the phase-out range.

In other words, the redistribution programs alter incentives to work since people implicitly calculate the costs and benefits of productive behavior.

Mulligan figures the top rate for these families eligible for various federal aid programs went from 40% to 48% in the immediate aftermath of the recession. In other words, for every extra dollar someone eligible for various aid programs makes, they lose 48% from taxes and benefit reductions. …Mulligan says. “The more you help low-income people, the more low-income people you’ll have. The more you help unemployed people, the more unemployed people you’ll have.”

John is right to cite Prof. Mulligan’s work.

I cited his work last year showing how Obamacare undermined incentives to work. And other academics have reached the same conclusion.

Regarding the broader issue of redistribution and dependency, I argue that federalism is the best approach, both because states will face competitive pressure to avoid excessively generous benefits and because states will learn from each other about the best ways to help the truly needy while minimizing the negative impact of handouts on incentives for productive behavior.

Or we could just keep the current system, which is bad for both poor people and taxpayers.

P.S. This Wizard-of-Id parody contains a lot of insight about labor supply and incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

P.P.S. If you want some jokes referencing the disability program, we have the politically correct version of The Little Red Hen, as well as two very similar jokes about Jesus performing miracles and how liberals differ from conservatives and libertarians.

P.P.P.S. Switching to a different topic, the IRS is whining that it needs to a bigger budget to better “service” taxpayers.

The Washington Examiner has a great editorial on the topic. Here are some of the better passages.

Oh, those poor dears at the IRS. They wasted $50 million on 225 conferences between 2010 and 2012, including a single $4.1 million conference in Anaheim, Calif. They wasted $50,000 creating bad videos on the clock, including one of the worst Star Trek parodies in the history of the Internet. They gave raises and bonuses to employees who hadn’t paid their own taxes. They were caught targeting applicants for nonprofit status based on their ideology and potential opposition to President Obama. They lied to Congress about being unable to recover emails from those involved.

Yet the bureaucracy still wants more money.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen warned that taxpayers would suffer… But according to a new report by the House Ways and Means Committee, these inconveniences were the result of IRS malingering – of budgetary choices made within the agency itself….“Spending decisions entirely under the IRS’s control led to 16 million fewer taxpayers receiving IRS assistance this filing season,” said the report. “Other spending choices, including prioritizing employee bonuses and union activity on the taxpayer’s dime, used up resources that otherwise could have been used to assist another 10 million taxpayers.” This is a classic example of how federal bureaucrats take revenge when their budgets are cut. Instead of prioritizing limited resources in order to fulfill their agencies’ missions, they find ways to transfer the maximum amount of pain directly to taxpayers, so as to teach the country a lesson about how indispensable they are.

In other words, a classic example of the “Washington Monument ploy.”

Though not as outrageous as the crass behavior of the politicized National Park Service.

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I’m a huge fan of a simple and fair flat tax.

Simply stated, if we’re going to have some sort of broad-based tax, it makes sense to collect revenue in the least-damaging fashion possible.

And a flat tax achieves that goal by adhering to the principles of good tax policy.

  1. A low tax rate – This is the best-known feature of the flat tax. A low tax rate is designed to minimize the penalty on work, entrepreneurship, and other forms of productive behavior.
  2. No double taxation of saving and investment – The flat tax gets rid of the tax bias against income that is saved and invested. The capital gains tax, double tax on dividends, and death tax are all abolished. Shifting to a system that taxes economic activity only one time will boost capital formation, thus facilitating an increase in productivity and wages.
  3. No distorting loopholes – With the exception of a family-based allowance designed to protect lower-income people, the flat tax eliminates all deductions, exemptions, shelters, preference, exclusions, and credits. By creating a neutral tax system, this ensures that decisions are made on the basis of economic fundamentals, not tax distortions.

All three features are equally important, sort of akin to the legs of a stool. And if we succeeded with fundamental reform, it would mean an end to the disgraceful internal revenue code.

But just because an idea is good policy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s also good politics.

So let’s delve into the debate over whether the flat tax is a winning political issue as well as a pro-growth reform.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation thinks the flat tax has political legs.

…the flat tax is again the rage in a presidential primary. A number of GOP candidates, including Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker, are looking to go flat with a radically simplified postcard tax return. …Ripping up the 70,000-page tax code has visceral appeal to voters.The way to sell the flat tax is as the ultimate Washington versus America issue. The only people who benefit from a complicated, barnacle-encrusted 70,000-page tax code are tax attorneys, accountants, lobbyists, IRS agents, and politicians who use the tax code as a way to buy and sell favors. The belly of the beast of corruption in American politics is the IRS tax code. The left keeps saying it wants to end the corrupting influence of big money in politics. Fine. By far the best way to do that is enact a flat tax and D.C. becomes the Sahara Desert.

I like what Steve is saying.

And I specifically agree that the best way of selling tax reform is to point out that it’s a Washington-versus-America issue.

When I first started giving speeches about the flat tax in the 1990s, I focused on the pro-growth and pro-competitive impact of lower marginal tax rates and reductions in double taxation.

People largely agreed with those points, but they didn’t get excited.

I soon learned that they instinctively liked the flat tax because they saw it as a way of cleaning out the stables of a corrupt system. In other words, they wanted tax reform mostly for reasons of fairness.

But with fairness properly defined, meaning all taxpayers playing by the same rules. Not the left’s definition, which is based on punishing success with high marginal tax rates.

Steve concurs.

So can the flat tax catch the populist tide of voter rage and angst over an economy that has squeezed the middle class for nearly a decade? Who knows? What seems certain is Democrats will run a class warfare campaign of raising tax rates on the rich. But envy isn’t an economic revival policy. Republicans can win this debate by going on the offensive and reminding voters that the best way to grow the economy, create jobs, and increase tax payments by the rich is to flatten the code. Flat is the new fair.

So does this mean the flat tax is a slam-dunk issue?

Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review is unconvinced. Here’s some of what he wrote about the candidates pushing fundamental reform.

They may have some creative ideas to get around problems with previous flat-tax proposals. But I have my doubts about whether a flat tax could be…as politically attractive as Moore suggests.

Ramesh is particularly skeptical whether the flat tax can be more appealing than the Lee-Rubio tax plan.

I have my doubts about whether a flat tax could be free from the objections Moore raises against Lee-Rubio… A 15 percent flat tax could also expose many more millions of people to tax increases than Lee-Rubio does; and it seems highly unlikely to reduce tax bills for as many people as Lee-Rubio does.

At the risk of sounding like a politician, I agree with both Steve and Ramesh.

Taking them in reverse order, Ramesh is correct that a flat tax faces an uphill battle. He specifically warns that a flat tax might result in higher fiscal burdens for millions of middle-class taxpayers.

Ultimately, that would depend on the tax rate, the size of the family-based allowance, and whether tax reform also was a tax cut. And those choices could be easier to make if Republicans actually demonstrated some political acumen and modernized the revenue-estimating system at the Joint Committee on Taxation.

And Ramesh also points out, quite appropriately, that the flat tax will create strong opposition from interest groups that benefit from provisions in the current system.

But Steve is correct that people want bold reform, which is a proxy for ending tax-code corruption. I’ve already praised the Lee-Rubio plan, which Ramesh likes, but I have a hard time imagining that such a plan will seize the public imagination like a flat tax.

Moreover, the Lee-Rubio plan is a huge tax cut. Since I think good reform is more likely if a plan lowers the overall tax burden, I consider that to be a feature rather than a bug.

But it does mean you have to fight a two-front war, battling both those who benefit from the current system as well as those who don’t want to reduce the flow of revenue to Washington.

These are big obstacles, whether we’re talking about an incremental plan like Lee-Rubio or big-picture reform like a flat tax.

Which is why, regardless of what happens with elections, I’m not overly optimistic about making progress. Unless, of course, we figure out some way of dealing the growing burden of federal spending. Which necessarily requires genuine entitlement reform.

P.S. Don’t forget that Barack Obama reportedly will be introducing a very simple tax reform plan.

P.P.S. Since we’re talking about the impact of policies on the election, my colleague Michael Cannon points to some very low-hanging fruit.

For more than five years, the executive branch has been issuing illegal subsidies that personally benefit the most powerful interest group in the nation’s capital: members of Congress and their staffs. …executive-branch agencies have broken the law, over and over, to protect ObamaCare. …The longest-running and perhaps most significant way the administration has broken the law to protect ObamaCare is by issuing illegal subsidies to members of Congress.

What’s Michael talking about?

When congressional Democrats passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), they were so desperate to pass a health care law that the ACA did not receive the scrutiny most bills do. Many members of Congress and their staffs were therefore surprised to learn that, as of the moment the president signed the ACA, that very law threw them out of their health plans. The ACA prohibits members of Congress and their staffs from receiving health coverage through the Federal Employees’ Health Benefits Program. They remained free to purchase health insurance on their own, but they would have to do so without the $10,000 or so the federal government “contributed” to their FEHBP premiums.

But who cares what the law says.

Rather than risk Congress reopening the ACA to restore their lost health coverage — because who knows what other changes Congress might make in the process — the administration simply pretended that that part of the law didn’t exist. The Office of Personnel Management announced that members of Congress and their staffs could remain in the FEHBP until the ACA’s Exchanges launched in 2014.  …That still didn’t solve the president’s problems, however. The ACA says that as of 2014, the only coverage the federal government can offer members of Congress in connection with their employment is coverage created under the Act. In effect, that means Exchange coverage. But the law still cut off that $10,000 “employer contribution” to their health benefits. According to Politico, “OPM initially ruled that lawmakers and staffers couldn’t receive the subsidies once they went into the exchanges.” After the president intervened, OPM just ignored that part of the law and started issuing (illegal) subsidies on the order of $10,000 to hundreds of individual members of Congress and thousands of individual congressional staffers.

So what does all this have to do with the 2016 elections?

Well, as Michael points out, the GOP could make a lot of hay by going after the Obama Administration’s illegal favor for Capitol Hill.

Ending Congress’ special ObamaCare exemption — i.e., the bribes individual members of Congress and their staffs are receiving not to reopen ObamaCare — polls off the charts. More than 90 percent of voters believe this exemption is unfair.

The goal, of course, isn’t to deny the folks on Capitol Hill from getting pre-Obamacare subsidies for their health plans.

Instead, Michael is saying that these subsidies have to be restored in the proper fashion, which means amending the law, which will also open the door to other changes.

Which might mean actually addressing the real problems in our healthcare system.

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When writing about economic growth, my usual approach is to point out that more output is a function of increases in the quantity and quality of labor capital.

This is a helpful way of thinking about growth since it becomes easier to understand why certain policies are bad (such as redistribution programs that discourage labor supply) and other policies are good (reducing double taxation to encourage more saving and investment).

But labor and capital are only part of the story. Those two “factors of production” are the ingredients for growth, but who decides how those ingredients are combined?

As I point out in one of the Powerpoint slides I often use, there needs to be a “chef.”

This is why entrepreneurs are so important. They are the innovators who often figure out better and smarter ways of mixing labor and capital, leading to the “creative destruction” that characterizes dynamic and prosperous economies.

Entrepreneurs make mistakes all the time, of course, but there’s a feedback mechanism in a private economy called profit and loss. And that rewards good choices and penalizes bad choices. By contrast, when politicians play “chef,” you get cronyism, inefficiency, and corruption.

To understand the critical role of entrepreneurship, I strongly recommend a great two-part series, authored by two Swedish brothers, Tino Sanandaji and Nima Sanandaji, published by Cayman Financial Review.

In Part I, published in January, they share some good news about the state of entrepreneurship in America compared to Europe.

Entrepreneurship matters. And the rate of entrepreneurship differs across the Atlantic. Of the 100 largest public companies in the U.S., 31 were founded by an entrepreneur during the post-war era. In Europe, the corresponding figure is only seven out of the 100 largest firms. While these new firms in the U.S. created over four million jobs, those in Europe created about a million. A slightly different measure is the 500 largest global firms listed by the Financial Times. Amongst the U.S. firms on the list 29 percent were formed after 1950. This compares with merely eight percent in Europe.

But they make a valuable observation that entrepreneurship and self-employment are not necessarily the same thing.

In fact, the U.S. has a lower rate of self-employment than most other industrialized countries. Self-employment is the highest in Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal and Italy, countries with low rates of innovative entrepreneurship. Within the U.S., the self-employment rate in Silicon Valley is half that of the average of California. Clearly, the concept of entrepreneurship is very much different from that of self-employment. …When asked directly, four out of five business owners would not even define themselves as entrepreneurs. And approximately nine out of ten of the self-employed report that their firm does not engage in any innovative activity. So while a percentage of self-employed are true or potential entrepreneurs, not all of them are.

So the Sanandaji brothers decided to create a new measure based on “SuperEntrepreneurs.”

…we have worked on constructing a measure of high-impact entrepreneurship. The basis of our analysis is the comprehensive work that Forbes Magazine annually does when compiling the list ‘The World’s Billionaires’. We build upon Forbes’ work by distinguishing the individuals who have amassed a billion dollar fortune through entrepreneurship.

Their findings are fascinating.

The richest individuals in capitalist market economies to a surprisingly large extent appear to earn their wealth by creating new value, rather than inheriting it or acquiring it illegitimately. …the difference between both sides of the Atlantic is significant. In Western Europe 42 percent of the billionaires are self-made entrepreneurs, with most of the rest having inherited their wealth. In the U.S., 70 percent of billionaires are self-made entrepreneurs. In countries such as China that have only recently opened to capitalism, virtually all billionaires are self-made entrepreneurs. This indicates that the American Dream – the notion that it is possible for individuals to rise to the top through effort, luck and genius – is still alive. Self-made billionaire entrepreneurs have created millions of jobs, billions of dollars in private wealth and probably trillions of dollars of value for society.

And that value varies by region.

The number of SuperEntrepreneurs varies significantly across countries. Hong Kong has the most, with around three SuperEntrepreneurs per million inhabitants. The second highest rate of entrepreneurship is found in Israel, where there are close to two SuperEntrepeneurs per million inhabitants, followed by the U.S., Switzerland and Singapore. …When comparing large regions, the gap in super-entrepreneurship can be clearly seen. The U.S. is roughly four times as entrepreneurial as Western Europe and three times as entrepreneurial as Japan. The same relations hold regardless of whether we look at our measure of SuperEntrepreneurs, large firm founders or venture capital investment as a percentage of GDP.

But why does SuperEntrepreneuship vary by regions?

In Part I, the Sanandajis note that there seems to be more success in the Anglosphere (i.e., nations that got their legal system from England).

In Part II, published in April, they dig deeper and identify the policies that make a difference.

They start with property rights.

One institution that has a direct and positive link to entrepreneurship is the protection of private property. …Property rights matter because individuals will rarely invest the massive amounts of time and money needed to creating an entrepreneurial company if there is an imminent risk that their firm will be taken from them in the event it becomes valuable. In economies with weak protection of property rights and corrupt states, firms tend to stay small and informal. This of course inhibits high growth entrepreneurship. …In our study, we find a clear link between property rights – as measured by the International Property Rights Index – and the level of SuperEntrepreneurship per capita around the world. The countries which have the strongest property rights tend to have more high-impact entrepreneurs.

They also find taxes make a difference.

Another key factor influencing the rate of high-impact entrepreneurship is taxes.  …Taxes are therefore a necessary evil. The need to balance the need for revenue and the damaging impact of taxes on the economy is perhaps the biggest challenge of modern welfare states. …Entrepreneurial success is a fabulous prize that motivates many to try, for a few to succeed. If taxes diminish the value of this prize, fewer individuals will make the effort and take the risk to win. … If taxes eat away a sizable part of the return from the rare cases of great success, the calculus between these choices is changed. …high taxes can make a previously profitable investment unprofitable. …Research has consistently shown that business owners reduce their output more in reaction to taxes than workers; they are, in the terminology of economists, more responsive. This is likely due to a combination of entrepreneurs having more control over their reported income, more control over effort and being more responsive to economic incentives. …In our study, we indeed do find a clear relation between taxes on profit and the share of high-impact entrepreneurs in our list. The nations that have the highest tax rates tend to be the same that have the lowest rates of entrepreneurship.

And they explain that regulatory burdens also are important.

The third institutional factor that is strongly linked to the rate of SuperEntrepreneurship is regulation.  …Each individual regulation may seem reasonable in out of itself… Taken together however, these well-meaning regulations can grow exponentially and inhibit business startup. This is especially true as startups do not have the resources to hire full time employees to deal with regulations like large firms. Regulations can also inhibit the rate of growth, take energy from the entrepreneur that could instead be used to develop the venture and can also force the firm to make poor business decisions in order to comply with some rule or regulation. …in many countries regulations arise not in order to ensure desirable social outcomes, but in order to facilitate government control and even corruption….we rely in our work on the World Bank “ease of doing business” index… We find that countries with a heavy regulatory burden have fewer entrepreneurs per capita. The findings are replicated when using an alternate regulatory index for the OECD countries. Even when controlling for tax rates and per capita income, more regulation is associated with fewer SuperEntrepreneurs.

I’m only skimming the surface on what’s included in the two articles.

But here’s the bottom line, as illustrated by this table from Part II.

And their conclusion emphasizes why it’s important to have genuine free markets so highly productive people seek success by serving the needs and wants of consumers. In a cronyist economy, by contrast, people seek “success” through government favoritism.

Another aim is to distinguish between crony capitalists and constructive entrepreneurs. Our preliminary analysis shows that countries with free market policies are dominated by individuals who become rich by creating even greater value for society at large. Countries with high levels of state involvement and weak market institutions on the other hand encourage individuals to gain wealth at the expense of others. In all systems, individuals are motivated by wealth.

Now let’s close by looking at the issue from a more US-centric perspective.

Liya Palagashvili of George Mason University writes in U.S. News and World Report that entrepreneurship seems to be waning in the United States.

And government deserves the blame.

What exactly are the factors leading to the decline in business activity in the United States? And what can be done to revive the American entrepreneurial environment? Economists identify the costs imposed on entrepreneurs by the regulatory environment as one of the most important influences on business dynamism. Where regulations make it difficult to start and operate businesses, entrepreneurs have a difficult time bringing new ideas and innovations to fruition. Promising entrepreneurs who face burdensome regulations might opt out of doing business or decide to take their ideas to countries with more favorable business climates. Burdensome regulations such as credit and labor-market regulations, business taxes and start-up costs – like the number of procedures, payments and minimum capital requirements to start a business – all influence individuals’ decisions to engage in entrepreneurial activity. Is it costly to start a business? Am I even allowed to start a business? Will my business entail high labor costs? Can I easily fire bad or redundant workers?

Unfortunately, while government deserves the blame, the rest of us will bear the costs.

These trends pose a long-term problem. If a favorable entrepreneurial environment is eroding, what will become of economic prosperity for future Americans? …People living in the United States and much of the developed world today experience significantly higher standards of living because entrepreneurs continuously introduce and improve market products – not only items such as personal computers and cell phones, but new medicines, better clothing and other technologies that improve ordinary people’s daily lives. New technological improvements are sparked when entrepreneurs are able to reap the benefits of their innovations, and business entry is high when start-up costs are low.

So we have yet another piece of evidence showing the superiority of free markets and small government.

P.S. At the start of the month, I defended religious liberty laws based on the libertarian principle of freedom of association. Simply stated, the government shouldn’t have the power to force you to do business with people you don’t like, even if you have repugnant motivations.

Well, that principle is a two-way street. Check out these excerpts from a recent news report out of Colorado.

Last week, the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that Denver’s Azucar Bakery did not discriminate against William Jack, a Christian from Castle Rock, by refusing to make two cakes with anti-gay messages and imagery that he requested last year. …Silva told the civil rights agency that she also told Jack her bakery “does not discriminate” and “accept[s] all humans.” Jack told the civil rights agency the bakery treated him unequally and denied him goods or services based on his religious creed, Christianity. He said he found this “demeaning to his beliefs.”

I’m glad the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled in favor of the bakery, though its legal reasoning is laughable. The bakery unambiguously discriminated.

But it’s not the role of government to force people to like each other or do business with each other, whether the issue involves some Christians preferring not to do business with some gays or some gays (or gay sympathizers) preferring not to do business with some Christians.

P.P.S. Here’s another update on a previous column.

I wrote last year about how some gun control laws were imposed by racist state governments that wanted to disarm oppressed black Americans.

Well, fortunately those bad laws weren’t always successful. Here’s a blurb from a recent book that Tyler Cowen posted at Marginal Revolution.

…although nonviolence was crucial to the gains made by the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, those gains could not have been achieved without the complementary and still underappreciated practice of armed self-defense.  The claim that armed self-defense was a necessary aspect of the civil rights movement is still controversial.  However, wielding weapons, especially firearms, let both participants in nonviolent struggle and their sympathizers protect themselves and others under terrorist attack for their civil rights activities.  This willingness to use deadly force ensured the survival not only of countless brave men and women but also of the freedom struggle itself.

Another reason why Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a., Instapundit) is correct to call the 2nd Amendment a civil rights issue.

Or a human rights issue, as powerfully illustrated by Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

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I don’t understand the left’s myopic fixation on income inequality. If they genuinely care about the less fortunate, they should be focused on policies that produce higher incomes.

But instead, they agitate for class warfare and redistribution, which leads me to believe that many of them hate the rich more than they love the poor.

And while it’s surely true that governments can harm (or worse!) the financial status of folks like Bill Gates, that doesn’t help the poor.

Indeed, the poor could be worse off since statist policies are linked to weaker economic performance.

So relative inequality may decline, but only because the rich suffer even more than the poor (as Margaret Thatcher brilliantly explained).

That’s a bad outcome by any reasonable interpretation.

But let’s set aside the economic issues and contemplate the political potency of so-called income inequality.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, William Galston of the Brookings Institution (and a former adviser to Bill Clinton) opines that income inequality isn’t a powerful issue in America.

Hillary Clinton was reportedly struck that no one had asked her about inequality. She shouldn’t have been surprised… Recent opinion surveys show inequality well down the list of public concerns. In a February CBS News poll, for example, only 4% of Americans named income disparities as the most important problem facing the country. In March only 2% told Gallup that the income gap was at the top of their list.

Galston cites a couple of studies of public opinion trends.

In…Public Opinion Quarterly in 2013, Matthew Luttig also found that rising inequality has failed to boost support for redistribution and may actually have the opposite effect. What is going on? The authors of the Brookings paper found that the principal beneficiaries of government programs—especially the elderly—have become increasingly resistant in recent decades to additional redistributive policies. During that period, just about every new cohort entering the ranks of the elderly has been less supportive of redistribution than its predecessor.

He doesn’t think voters necessarily are becoming libertarian or conservative.

But he does think leftists are deluding themselves if they think more propaganda will sway voters in favor of redistribution.

Many Democratic activists believe that the weakness of public support for redistribution rests on ignorance: Give them more information about what is really happening, and their policy preferences will be transformed. But a recent paper for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth reported that while survey respondents “who view information about inequality are more likely to believe that inequality is a serious problem, they show no more appetite for many interventions to reduce inequality.” The best explanation for this apparent anomaly: rising mistrust of government, especially the federal government. Many people who think inequality is an important problem don’t believe that Washington’s political institutions can be trusted to fix it.

Gee, I wonder why people think the federal government is incompetent in helping the poor?

Could it be that voters are slowly but surely realizing that P.J. O’Rourke was right?

In any event, Galston concludes with some very sound recommendations.

What matters most is growth that includes everyone. To get that kind of growth, we will have to act on a broad front to expand opportunity for those who now lack it—and ensure that workers earn enough to provide opportunity for their children. These measures will reduce inequality, all the more so if they are financed by linking real wages to productivity gains and terminating tax preferences that don’t promote growth while benefiting mainly the wealthiest Americans.

To be sure, Galston’s embrace of growth instead of redistribution doesn’t mean he has good ideas on what causes growth.

But at least he understands that the goal should be to make the pie bigger.

And that’s the point I made in this CNN interview, which took place via Skype since I was at a conference in Brussels.

Though you may notice that I mangle my metaphor at the end of the interview, switching from pie to cake.

But setting aside that one glitch, I hopefully got across my main point that the focus should be growth rather than inequality.

P.S. It’s worth noting that states with the most support for class warfare and redistribution also are the states with the most inequality. Maybe they should experiment with bad policy inside their own borders before trying to foist such policies on the entire nation.

P.P.S. I wrote last year about six remarkable examples of leftist hypocrisy. Make that seven.

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