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I’m conflicted.

I’ve repeatedly expressed skepticism about the idea of governments providing a “basic income” because I fear the work ethic will (further) erode if people automatically receive a substantial chunk of money.

Moreover, I also fear that a basic income will lead to an ever-expanding burden of government spending, particularly once net beneficiaries figure out they can vote themselves more money.

Given these concerns, I should be happy about this report from the New York Times.

For more than a year, Finland has been testing the proposition that the best way to lift economic fortunes may be the simplest: Hand out money without rules or restrictions on how people use it. The experiment with so-called universal basic income has captured global attention… Now, the experiment is ending. The Finnish government has opted not to continue financing it past this year, a reflection of public discomfort with the idea of dispensing government largess free of requirements that its recipients seek work. …the Finnish government’s decision to halt the experiment at the end of 2018 highlights a challenge to basic income’s very conception. Many people in Finland — and in other lands — chafe at the idea of handing out cash without requiring that people work. …Finland’s goals have been modest and pragmatic. The government hoped that basic income would send more people into the job market to revive a weak economy. …The basic income trial, which started at the beginning of 2017 and will continue until the end of this year, has given monthly stipends of 560 euros ($685) to a random sample of 2,000 unemployed people aged 25 to 58. Recipients have been free to do as they wished… The Finnish government was keen to see what people would do under such circumstances. The data is expected to be released next year, giving academics a chance to analyze what has come of the experiment.

The reason I’m conflicted is that the current welfare state – both in the United States and other developed nations – is bad for both taxpayers and poor people.

So I like the idea of experimentation. There has to be a better way of alleviating genuine suffering without trapping poor people in dependency or punishing taxpayers.

Indeed, one of my arguments for radical decentralization in America is that states will try different approaches and we’ll have a much better chance of learning what works and what doesn’t.

And maybe we’ll learn that there are some benefits of providing a basic income. But, as reported by the U.K.-based Guardian, it’s unclear whether the Finnish experiment lasted long enough or was comprehensive enough to teach us anything.

The scheme – aimed primarily at seeing whether a guaranteed income might incentivise people to take up paid work by smoothing out gaps in the welfare system…it was hoped it would shed light on policy issues such as whether an unconditional payment might reduce anxiety among recipients and allow the government to simplify a complex social security system… Olli Kangas, an expert involved in the trial, told the Finnish public broadcaster YLE: “Two years is too short a period to be able to draw extensive conclusions from such a big experiment. We should have had extra time and more money to achieve reliable results.”

I will be interested to see whether researchers generate any conclusions when they look at the two years of data from the Finnish experiment.

That being said, there already has been some research that underscores my concerns.

The OECD is not my favorite international bureaucracy, but its recent survey on Finland included some sobering estimates on the cost of a nationwide basic income.

In a basic income scenario, a lump-sum benefit replaces a number of existing benefits, financed by increasing income taxation by nearly 30% or around 4% of GDP. …the basic income requires significant increases to income taxation. …Financing a basic income at a meaningful level thus would require considerable additional tax revenue, and heavier taxation of income would at least partially undo any improvement in work incentives.

And in a report on basic income last year, the OECD poured more cold water on the idea.

…large tax-revenue changes are needed to finance a BI at meaningful levels, and tax reforms would therefore need to be an integral part of budget-neutral BI proposals. …abolishing tax-free allowances and making BI taxable means that everybody would pay income tax on the BI, and on all their other income. Tax burdens would go up for most people as a result, further increasing tax-to-GDP ratios that are currently already at a record-high in the OECD area. …There are also major concerns about unintended consequences of a BI. An especially prominent one is that unconditional income support would reduce the necessity for paid work.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see how work incentives aren’t adversely affected. Why go through the hassle of being employed when you can sit at home and play computer games all day?

P.S. Given the option of voting on a basic income in 2016, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected the notion.

P.P.S. Former Vice President Joe Biden actually agrees with me about one of the downsides of basic income.

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A few years ago, John Stossel did an undercover investigation of a government job-training program and he found that the operation was basically a scam.

Not that we should be surprised. Back in 2014, I explained to a C-Span audience that a healthy private sector was the only sure-fire way of producing a good job market. Which is why politicians (assuming they actually want job creation) should simply “get out of the way.”

Let’s now take a fresh look at the issue. The Wall Street Journal editorialized on this topic a few days ago.

…a new report from the Labor Department’s inspector general shows that the $1.7 billion federal Job Corps training program is a flop. …Nearly 50,000 people enrolled in 2017…the Job Corps provides meals, medical care, books, clothing and supplies, as well as an allowance for child care and living expenses. Such comprehensive support doesn’t come cheap—the taxpayer cost per student last year was $33,990—and the IG suggests that the investment often doesn’t pay off. …in 27 of 50 cases where full employment data existed, graduates were working the same sort of low-wage, low-skill jobs they held before training.

But there are beneficiaries of the program. The bureaucrats and contractors involved in the program make out like bandits.

The new report suggests that Job Corps’ biggest beneficiaries may be government contractors, not rookie job seekers. Job Corps spent more than $100 million between 2010 and 2011 on transition-service specialists to place students in a job after training. But among 324 sampled Job Corps alumni, the IG found evidence that contractors had helped a mere 18 find work. The contractors often claimed credit for success even though they provided no referrals or résumé and interview help.

Once again, this should not be surprising. It’s what we find over and over and over again.

Here are some excerpts from a report prepared a few years ago by then-Senator Tom Coburn.

…the government has taken on a role for which it was never intended, pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into a broken web of job training and employment programs that are rife with waste, fraud and abuse and lacking demonstrable effectiveness. …In FY 2009, nine federal agencies spent approximately $18 billion to administer 47 separate employment and job training programs, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO identified another 51 federal programs that could be categorized as federal job training programs… The GAO found all but three of the 47 programs overlap with at least one other program in that they provide similar services to similar populations – yet maintain separate administrative structures.

All that bureaucracy and duplication might be an acceptable price to pay to get good results.

Except the programs are a miserable flop.

GAO finds ―little is known about the effectiveness of most programs. …impact studies that were conducted ―generally found the effects of participation were not consistent across programs, with only some demonstrating positive impacts that tended to be small, inconclusive or restricted to short-term impacts.

The report then lists 25 separate examples of wasteful and fraudulent spending.

It’s difficult to pick the most egregious example, but #14 caught my attention.

…a Department of Labor official was found to be taking bribes from a Job Corps contractor, even approving contracts that billed for ghost employees. …the government provided Job Corps with $1.68 billion in fiscal year 2009 and $1.7 billion in FY 2010. Job Corps also received $250 million in stimulus funding in addition to regular annual appropriations. …As part of the Inspector General‘s investigation, a search warrant was executed at the contractor‘s home. The contractor said that Brevard assisted in getting him contracts in exchange for payments. The contractor paid Brevard because if he did not do so, she would not process his invoices. When asked by law enforcement, Brevard admitted to receiving payments from the contractor paid her, and that she approved contracts – of which she knew were false.

Let’s look at a recent real-world example of failure.

The Daily Signal has done some solid reporting on this topic, including this look at the high cost and low benefits of job-training programs.

A government-funded job training program that promised to turn hundreds of residents of Kentucky’s coal country into computer coders so far has spent $2 million to place 17 people in tech jobs and may have left others worse off… The job training program, budgeted for a total of $4.5 million, was supposed to last through 2019 and train up to 200 people from an economically depressed region of Kentucky for middle- to high-skill careers in information technology. …But less than a year later, workers have torn down signs at Big Sandy Community and Technical College, where the program was based, and are closing shop on what appears to be a government-funded program run amok. A total of 32 of the 49 Kentuckians who originally enrolled in the TechHire program in Eastern Kentucky, known as TEKY, have not obtained jobs in the tech industry, according to government figures.

Predictably, the contractors were beneficiaries.

EKCEP spent $1.98 million on the partnership with Interapt. That total includes payments of $861,612 to Interapt for staff salaries and management fees, $706,146 for program service fees, and $115,287 for travel. In one case, Interapt billed EKCEP $5,200 a month for rental of a five-bedroom, five-bathroom house in Paintsville, complete with swimming pool, for Interapt staffers working on the training program. But Gopal, Interapt’s CEO, submitted as an expense and was reimbursed $1,022.40 in December alone for staying at a Ramada Inn in Paintsville, which is about 200 miles east of Louisville. …“Companies like Interapt can rely on the federal government as a crutch because the government has traditionally funded these job training programs, and it creates this vicious circle where industry supports it, politicians support it, but the results don’t bear out the intentions of the programs,” said Nick Loris, an economist who researches and writes about energy policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Let’s close with a meaty excerpt from an overview of job-training programs by Chris Edwards and Daniel Murphy.

The most thorough assessment of federal job training programs was a $25 million National JTPA study in 1994, which was commissioned by the Department of Labor. It tracked 20,000 people over a four-year period who used various training services, and compared them to control groups who did not. The study found that for most participants, federal programs had no significant benefits. …(Labor experts James Heckman and Jeffrey Smith note: “For youth, the record of government training programs for the disadvantaged is almost uniformly negative.”) All in all, the National JTPA study found that the modest benefits of the program were outweighed by the program’s costs. A 2002 book, The Job Training Charade, examines the failures of federal job training programs over the decades. The author, Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon, is very liberal in his politics… But based on his detailed review, he finds that federal job training programs have provided very small or insignificant benefits. He argues that these programs exist for political reasons alone. Politicians have championed these programs in order to be seen as “doing something” to help workers, and whether they actually work or not is less important. Lafer argues that “as successive generations of job training programs fail to produce the hoped for results, policymakers have cycled through a stock repertoire of procedural fixes that promise to solve the problem.” CETA was supposed to fix problems of the 1960’s training programs. JTPA was supposed to fix CETA, and the WIA was supposed to fix JTPA. Lafer notes that “repeated reports of [JTPA’s] failure seem to have little impact on its political popularity… JTPA was succeeded by the Workforce Investment Act which . . . largely repeats the same strategies found to have failed under JTPA.” Job training legislation is little more than “political symbolism,” he says.

Unfortunately, empty “political symbolism” is the specialty of Washington.

Politicians don’t see the “unseen” and they don’t understand “creative destruction.”

So their efforts at job creation hinder rather than help.

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When trying to convince someone about the downsides of socialism, I generally make a practical argument. I point out that socialism has universally failed, whether looking at totalitarian versions in places such as North Korea and Cuba or democratic versions in places such as Venezuela and Greece.

Simply stated, the particular strain of socialism doesn’t make a difference. At the end of the day, the greater the level of statism, the greater the level of economic damage.

But our friends on the left aren’t discouraged. Indeed, the support for cranks like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn is a sign that socialist policies still have appeal to some people.

Writing for CapX, Kristian Niemietz of London’s Institute for Economic Affairs contemplates the resurgence of socialism. He starts by citing examples of pro-socialist writings.

Opinion pieces which tell us to stop obsessing over socialism’s past failures…have almost become a genre… Nathan Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs, wrote…that socialism has not “failed”. It has just never been done properly… Closer to home, Owen Jones wrote that Cuba’s current version of socialism was not “real” socialism… And Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote an article with the self-explanatory title ‘It’s time to give socialism a try’.

Kristian provides three reasons why the we’ll-do-better-next-time theory of socialism is very impractical.

…articles in this genre share a number of common flaws. First, as much as the authors insist that previous examples of socialism were not “really” socialist, none of them can tell us what exactly they would do differently. …Secondly, the authors do not seem to realise that there is nothing remotely new about the lofty aspirations they talk about, and the buzzphrases they use. Giving “the people” democratic control over economic life has always been the aspiration, and the promise, of socialism. …Thirdly, contemporary socialists completely fail to address the deficiencies of socialism in the economic sphere. They talk a lot about how their version of socialism would be democratic, participatory, non-authoritarian, nice and cuddly. Suppose they could…magically make that work. What then? They would then be able to avoid the Gulags, the show trials and the secret police… But we would still be left with a dysfunctional economy.

Amen to the last point.

I wrote last year that Marxist socialism is disgusting and brutal compared to liberal socialism, but both versions lead to economic malaise.

Which leads to the conclusion of Kristian’s column.

Ultimately, the contemporary argument for socialism boils down to: “next time will be different, because we say so.” After more than two dozen failed attempts, that is just not good enough.

Of course, some people instinctively knew that socialism was a pre-determined recipe for failure. Here’s the great Winston Churchill speaking about statism shortly after World War II.

Spot on. You can’t control an economy without controlling people.

And here’s another voice from the past, courtesy of Reddit‘s libertarian page.

And here’s Mr. Rogers imagining a fantasy world where socialism might work.

Last but not least, let’s close with this gem from Reddit‘s Libertarian Meme page.

Though when you think about people starving to death in places like Venezuela and North Korea, I suppose we shouldn’t laugh too much.

P.S. Other examples of socialism humor can be enjoyed here, here, and here.

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I periodically share data comparing the United States and Europe, usually because I want to convince people that America’s medium-sized welfare state is better (less worse) than Europe’s bloated welfare states.

In other words, Bernie Sanders is wrong.

But I sometimes feel guilty when making these unflattering comparisons because Europe – at least by world standards – actually deserves a good bit of praise.

If you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll find that the 28 nations of the European Union (outlined in red) have relatively strong scores. Indeed, 27 of them rank in the top half, with Greece being the embarrassing exception.

And 17 EU nations rank in the top quartile, three of them above the U.S.

If you dig into the data, you’ll find that EU nations generally get crummy scores for fiscal policy, but misguided policies on taxes and spending are more than offset by superior scores for trade, monetary policy, regulatory policy, and quality of governance.

Now let’s look at some recent trends. I mentioned yesterday that I’m at the European Parliament in Brussels for a conference on economic freedom.

My friend Martin Agerup from Denmark gave an overview of economic freedom in EU nations, and I want to highlight some of his slides.

We’ll start with this modified ranking of economic freedom, which looks at where a hypothetical European nation would rank if it cherry-picked the best real-world scores (for the five major indices) of the various EU countries.

This hypothetical country, based on the best practices of various EU nations, would have the third-highest score for economic liberty – trailing only Hong Kong and Singapore.

This underscores my point about considerable economic liberty in Europe.

Martin also looked at trends in the European Union.

Here’s a slide looking at the evolution of economic freedom in Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

Three things are worth noting about this chart.

  • First, there was a dramatic improvement in economic freedom in Western Europe (blue line) from 1975-2000. Many people know about Thatchernomics, but there was a lot of pro-market reform in the rest of Europe.
  • Second, you’ll notice the giant jump in economic freedom in Eastern Europe (red line) from 1995-2005. The collapse of communism has resulted in vast improvements in economic liberty.
  • Third, the overall continent has seen comparatively little progress in recent years.

But averages can be deceiving. This next chart shows that some nations did rise and fall over the past decade. Many Eastern European nations boosted their scores by a modest degree, and Sweden also deserves a special mention.

Greece stands out for the worst performance in the past 10 years.

Which gives me an excuse to share one final chart from Martin’s presentation. Sweden suffered a deep crisis at the start of the 1990s, somewhat akin to what Greece suffered in 2008. But the two countries responded in radically different ways. Sweden shrank government and boosted economic liberty while Greece increased the size and scope of the state (aided and abetted by bailouts!).

This video has more details on the comparison of the two countries.

P.S. Notwithstanding the relatively nice things I just wrote about Europe, the continent faces some major fiscal challenges. And middle-class taxpayers, who already are being suffocated by high taxes, will probably get further pillaged.

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I’m in Brussels, where I’m participating in an “Economic Freedom Summit” on the unfriendly turf of the European Parliament.

My role was to chair a panel earlier today about whether Venezuela can recover from socialism. I obviously have an opinion on that topic, but I want to write today about some information that was shared on the panel about transition economies.

Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser to Vladimir Putin, gave a talk about economic reform in Russia. I also have an opinion on that topic, but that’s also not today’s issue.

Instead, I want to share some of his charts on the broader topic of government spending and economic growth.

As you might expect, he showed the negative correlation between the size of government and economic performance in Russia.

He also had numbers for the United States, though for a much longer period of time.

He also had the data for Germany.

And also the numbers for Japan.

Since the panel’s main focus was countries making the transition from communism, Andrei also looked at the relationship between government spending and growth rates in those nations.

Last but not least, here are his calculations based on 56 years of data in developed countries, on the impact of government spending on economic growth.

This is powerful data, even when you factor in the caveats Andrei mentioned in the discussion.

For all intents and purposes, the lines in Andrei’s various charts are measures of the downward sloping portion of the Rahn Cure. I explain in this video.

I’ve shared research on government spending and economic performance on any occasions, including some findings from a very good book published by London’s Institute for Economic Affairs.

And it’s worth noting that even the left-leaning OECD has produced findings very similar to Andrei’s data.

  • The OECD admitted in one study that “a reduction in the size of the government could increase long-term GDP by about 10%, with much larger effects in some countries.”
  • The OECD admitted in another study that “a cut in the tax-to-GDP ratio by 10 percentage points of GDP (accompanied by a deficit-neutral cut in transfers) may increase annual growth by ½ to 1 percentage points.”
  • The OECD admitted in a different study that “an increase of about one percentage point in the tax pressure (or, equivalently one half of a percentage point in government consumption, taken as a proxy for government size)…could be associated with a direct reduction of about 0.3 per cent in output per capita. If the investment effect is taken into account, the overall reduction would be about 0.6-0.7 per cent.”

And the IMF also has a statist orientation, but it also has confessed that larger governments hinder growth, writing that “A tax cut for the middle-class, financed from a lump-sum reduction in government spending, …raises the steady state GDP by just under 1 percent after 5 years… in the simple case where the tax cuts are paid for by lump sum cuts in government spending, the personal income tax multiplier is around 3.”

In other words, the research clearly shows that shrinking the burden of government spending is a great recipe to promote greater prosperity. Andrei’s data is simply another layer of evidence.

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There is a lot of good news about the job market in America.

The official unemployment rate, released just yesterday, is down to 4.1 percent, which is the lowest its been since the end of the Clinton years. Even more impressive, the number of people getting unemployment benefits (i.e., getting paid not to work) has dropped to the lowest level since the early 1970s.

I don’t want to rain on this parade, but the numbers aren’t as good as they seem.

Back during the Obama years, I repeatedly pointed out the real health of the labor market should be measured by looking at either the rate of labor force participation or the employment-population ratio.

These are the numbers that give us a more accurate picture of the extent to which labor is being productively utilized (remember, national income is determined by the quality and quantity of labor and capital in the economy).

So let’s dig into the government’s database on labor force statistics and see where we stand when examining these more-insightful numbers.

We’ll start with the data on the rate of labor force participation, which is basically a measure of those working and looking for work as a share of the adult population. As you can see, that rate dropped significantly at the end of the Bush years/beginning of the Obama years. And it hasn’t recovered even though the recession ended back in 2009.

By the way, we shouldn’t expect this rate to be 100 percent, or even anywhere close to that high. After all, the 16-and-up population includes plenty of full-time students, retired people, disabled, stay-at-home moms (or dads), and others.

But I worry about the downward trend.

Now let’s look at the employment-population ratio, which is slightly more encouraging. We see a precipitous drop during the recession, but at least the number has been trending in the right direction for several years.

Though it’s nonetheless semi-depressing that the increase has been rather slow and we haven’t come anywhere close to recovering from the downturn.

To help understand the rate of joblessness, here’s a video from the Mercatus Center.

And to better understand the rate of employment, here’s a video from Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute.

As far as I’m concerned, the key factoid is near the end, where he points out that we would have 10 million additional working-age men productively employed if the rate of employment today was the same as it was in 1965.

And that’s largely the fault of government programs – such as unemployment insurance, disability, Obamacare, licensing, etc – that make it easier for people to choose to be unproductive.

Speaking of which, let’s close with some excerpts from one of Jason Riley’s columns in the Wall Street Journal.

Peter Cove dropped out of a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison more than 50 years ago to enlist in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. These days, he’s fighting a war on dependency. …Mr. Cove moved to New York in 1965 to work for the city’s new Anti-Poverty Operations Board… Mr. Cove…noticed… “The government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty that Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse.” Between 1962 and 2012, the percentage of the U.S. population receiving government assistance in the form of cash transfers almost doubled to 21% from 11.7%. …Between 1965 and 2011, the official poverty rate was essentially flat, while government spending per person on poverty programs rose by more than 900% after inflation. “…But as welfare spending soared, the decline in poverty came to a grinding halt.” …Mr. Cove…came to understand that the answer to poverty is prosperity, that the private sector is the better generator of prosperity, and that the best antipoverty program is a job. “Not only does big government get in the way when it provides disincentives to work, it also has a profoundly negative effect on community,”… The increase in government dependency that Mr. Cove laments predates President Obama by decades, but it did accelerate on Mr. Obama’s watch.

Great points, particularly about how the welfare state actually undermined progress on reducing poverty and also eroded societal capital.

All of which is captured in this Wizard-of-Id satire.

P.S. Some honest leftists admit that the welfare state has caused collateral damage.

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I explained last month that the World Trade Organization’s dispute-resolution mechanism is the best way of discouraging China from short-sighted mercantilist and cronyist trade policies.

The Trump Administration, though, thinks that the best response to bad Chinese trade policy is to adopt bad American trade policy.

In this interview, I fret that tit-for-tax protectionism is bad, and might even lead to a 1930s-style trade war.

The Wall Street Journal also is concerned, opining this morning about Trump’s self-destructive protectionism.

Stocks have given up their earlier gains since the President unveiled his protectionist trade agenda…the main policy concern is the new uncertainty from rising trade tension. China slapped punitive tariffs on 128 categories of American goods on Monday in retaliation for the Trump Administration’s national-security levies on steel (25%) and aluminum (10%) imports last month. …it sends a pointed message that a larger trade war would hurt American businesses, farmers in particular. …China’s retaliation is best understood as an economic and political demonstration, hitting a small number of products to signal where future blows could fall if the Trump Administration imposes punitive tariffs on $60 billion in Chinese goods to punish the theft of intellectual property. It’s notable that both Republican-leaning and Democratic states were hit. Tariffs on America’s biggest exports to China, such as soybeans and Boeing aircraft, were held in reserve. But don’t be surprised if they’re on the list if the President imposes Section 301 tariffs as he has vowed to do. …there will be significant collateral damage to innocent business bystanders, American consumers, and the overall U.S. economy. Mr. Trump risks undermining the policy gains from tax reform and deregulation that have teed up the economy for faster growth.

Amen, especially that last sentence.

As I warned in the interview, Trump is sabotaging the progress he made on tax policy and regulation.

Not a smart move since he likes to use the stock market as a report card on his performance. Live by the Dow Jones, die by the Dow Jones. Though, in this case, his protectionism means he wants to commit suicide by the Dow Jones.

Speaking of report cards, here’s a mock report card I created for the President. It’s not as amusing as the mock college transcript from Obama’s time at Columbia, but it highlights how bad policy – on spending as well as trade – is offsetting good policy.

It’s a bit different from the grades I gave on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, but more time has passed.

P.S. In the section for “teacher comments,” I suggested that the President needs extra tutoring to understand that a capital surplus (the flip side of a trade deficit) is generally a very positive indicator.

P.P.S. Let’s not forget that Trump is also threatening to deep-six NAFTA, so there are multiple threats to open global trade.

P.P.P.S. Makes me miss the Gipper even more. Heck, makes me miss Clinton, since he was in office and played a positive role when NAFTA and the WTO were ratified.

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