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Archive for the ‘Government Spending’ Category

The American Enterprise Institute has published a comprehensive budgetary plan entitled, “Tax and spending reform for fiscal stability and economic growth.”

Authored by Joseph Antos, Andrew G. Biggs, Alex Brill, and Alan D. Viard, all of whom I know and admire, this new document outlines a series of reforms designed to restrain the growth of government and mitigate many of the tax code’s more punitive features.

Compared to current law, the plan is a huge improvement.

But huge improvement isn’t the same as perfect, so here’s my two cents on what’s really good, what’s partially good, and what has me worried.

I’ll start with something that’s both good and bad.

According to the latest CBO estimates, federal tax revenues for 2015 will absorb 17.7 percent of GDP and spending will consume 20.4 percent of economic output. Now look at this table showing the impact of the AEI proposal. As you can see, the burden of taxes and spending will both be higher in the future than today.

That’s obviously bad. One would think a conservative organization would present a plan that shrinks the size of government!

But here’s the catch. Under current law, the burden of government is projected to climb far more rapidly, largely because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs. So if we do nothing and leave government on auto-pilot, America will be saddled with a European-sized welfare state.

From that perspective, the AEI plan actually is good since it is based on reforms that stop most – but not all – of the already-legislated expansions in the size of the public sector.

So here’s the bottom line. Compared to what I would like to see, the AEI plan is too timid. But compared to what I fear will happen, the AEI plan is reasonably bold.

Now let’s look at the specific reforms, staring with tax policy. Here’s some of what’s in the report.

The goal of our tax reform is to eliminate the income tax’s inherent bias against saving and investment and to reduce other tax distortions. To achieve this goal, the income tax system and the estate and gift taxes would be replaced by a progressive consumption tax, in the form of a Bradford X tax consisting of a…37 percent flat-rate firm-level tax on business cash flow and a graduated-rate household-level tax, with a top rate of 35 percent, on wages and fringe benefits.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the AEI folks decided that it was very important to solve the problem of double taxation and not so important to deal with the problem of a discriminatory and punitive rate structure. Which is sort of like embracing one big part of the flat tax while ignoring the other big part.

We’d have a less destructive tax code than we have now, but it wouldn’t be as good as it could be. Indeed, the plan is conceptually similar to the Rubio-Lee proposal, but with a lot more details.

Not that I’m happy with all those additional details.

To address environmental externalities in a more cost-effective and market-based manner, energy subsidies, tax credits, and regulations would be replaced by a modest carbon tax. The gasoline tax would be increased to cover highway-related costs.

I’m very nervous about giving Washington a new source of revenue. And while I’m open (in theory) to the argument that a carbon tax would be a better (less worse) approach than what we have now, I’m not sure it’s wise to trust that politicians won’t pull a bait and switch and burden us with both a costly energy tax and new forms of regulatory intervention.

And I definitely don’t like the idea of a higher gas tax. The federal government should be out of the transportation business.

There are also other features that irk me, including the continuation of some loopholes and the expansion of redistribution through the tax code.

Child and dependent care expenses could be deducted… A 15 percent refundable credit for charitable contributions… A 15 percent refundable credit for mortgage interest… A refundable credit for health insurance…the EITC for childless workers would be doubled relative to current law.

Though I should also point out that the new tax system proposed by AEI would be territorial, which would be a big step in the right direction. And it’s also important to note that the X tax has full expensing, which solves the bias against investment in a depreciation-based system.

But now let’s look at the most worrisome feature of the plan. It explicitly says that Washington should get more money.

… we also cannot address the imbalance simply by cutting spending… The tax proposals presented in this plan raise necessary revenues… Over time, tax revenue would gradually rise as a share of GDP… The upward path of tax revenue is necessary to finance the upward path of federal spending.

This is very counterproductive. But I don’t want to regurgitate my ideological anti-tax arguments (click here if that’s what you want). Let’s look at this issue from a strictly practical perspective.

I’ve reluctantly admitted that there are potential tax-hike deals that I would accept, at least in theory.

But those deals will never happen. In the real world, once the potential for additional revenue exists, the appetite for genuine spending restraint quickly evaporates. Just look at the evidence from Europe about the long-run relationship between taxes and debt and you’ll see that more revenue simply enables more spending.

Speaking of which, now let’s shift to the outlay side of the fiscal ledger.

We’ll start with Social Security, where the AEI folks are proposing to turn Social Security from a substandard social insurance program, which is bad, to a flat benefit, which might even be worse since it involves a shift to a system that is even more focused on redistribution.

The minimum benefit would be implemented immediately, increasing benefits for about one third of retirees, while benefits for middle- and high-earning individuals would be scaled down to the wage-indexed poverty level between now and 2050.

Yes, the system they propose is more fiscally sustainable for government, but what about the fact that most workers are paying record amounts of payroll tax in exchange for a miserly monthly payment?

This is why the right answer is personal retirement accounts.

The failure to embrace personal accounts may be the most disappointing feature of the AEI plan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors veered in this unfortunate direction because they put the cart of debt reduction ahead of the horse of good policy.

To elaborate, a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades, but it would give us a much better system in the long run. But this approach generally isn’t an attractive option for folks who fixate on near-term government debt.

That being said, there are spending reforms in the proposal that are very appealing.

The AEI plan basically endorses the good Medicare and Medicaid reforms that have been part of recent GOP budgets. And since those two programs are the biggest drivers of our long-run spending crisis, this is very important.

With regards to discretionary spending, the program maintains sequester/Budget Control Act spending levels for domestic programs, which is far too much since we should be abolishing departments such as HUD, Agriculture, Transportation, Education, etc.

But since Congress presumably would spend even more, the AEI plan could be considered a step in the right direction.

Finally, the AEI plan calls for military spending to consume 3.8 percent of economic output in perpetuity. National defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon should get a blank check, particularly since big chunks of that check get used for dubious purposes. But I’ll let the foreign policy and defense crowd fight that issue since it’s not my area of expertise.

P.S. The Heritage Foundation also has thrown in the towel on personal retirement accounts and embraced a basic universal flat benefit.

P.P.S. On a completely different topic, here’s a fascinating chart that’s being shared on Twitter.

As you can see, the United States is an exception that proves the rule. I don’t know that there are any policy implications, but I can’t help but wonder whether America’s greater belief in self-reliance is linked to the tendency of religious people to believe in individual ethics and moral behavior.

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Since I’m an advocate of smaller government, you might imagine I’m perpetually depressed. After all, I work in Washington where I’m vastly outnumbered by people who specialize in looting and mooching. At times, I feel like a missionary in a house of ill repute.

But I always look for the silver lining when there’s a dark cloud overhead. So while it’s true that government squanders our money and violates our rights, at least we sometimes get some semi-amusing stories about sheer incompetence and staggering stupidity.

Like Detroit spending $32 to issue $30 parking tickets.

The State Department buying friends.

Or Georgia’s drug warriors raiding a house because of okra plants.

FEMA house guidelines that make houses less safe in hurricanes.

Federal rules that prevent school bake sales.

Bureaucrats defecating in hallways.

Yes, I realize I also should be outraged about these examples. But I can’t help being amused as well.

So let’s add to our collection of bizarre, foolish, and wasteful behavior by government.

Here are some passages from a Washington Post exposé on mismanagement and waste at the federal department that is infamous for secret waiting lists that resulted in denied health care (and in some cases needless deaths) for America’s veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been spending at least $6 billion a year in violation of federal contracting rules to pay for medical care and supplies, wasting taxpayer money and putting veterans at risk, according to an internal memo written by the agency’s senior official for procurement. In a 35-page document addressed to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, the official accuses other agency leaders of “gross mismanagement” and making a “mockery” of federal acquisition laws that require competitive bidding and proper contracts. Jan R. Frye, deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, describes a culture of “lawlessness and chaos” at the Veterans Health Administration.

I confess that it’s hard to find anything amusing about this story, but I’m worried that I might go crazy if I simply focus on how a bureaucracy gets more and more money every year, yet also manages to waste money with no negative consequences.

Or maybe I just enjoy the fact that I have a new reason to mock a wasteful government department (sorry to be redundant).

Here’s an example of spending that is so silly that it’s okay for all of us to laugh. Enjoy this blurb on how tax dollars are being wasted by the foreign aid bureaucracy.

American taxpayers might come down with a case of the blues when they hear about how the State Department is spending their tax dollars. According to ForeignAssistance.gov, India has requested $88,439,000 in U.S. foreign aid for the year 2015, but the State Department plans to spend additional funds on diplomacy: music diplomacy. The U.S. Mission to India is offering a $100,000 grant opportunity titled “Strengthening US-India Relations Through Jazz.” Eligible applicants include public and private universities as well as non-profit organizations. …Another grant available to universities and non-profit groups is for a “Visual Exhibit on Indian Faith and Traditions in America.” For $75,000, U.S. taxpayers will fund a “photographic exhibit that showcases both the ways that Indian-Americans practice their faith traditions in the United States, and the ways that Indian faith traditions have been adopted by American communities.” According to the offering, “The images will capture the diversity of the Indian-American community, so that a broad range of religious traditions are depicted.

These numbers are small compared to, say, the malfeasance and waste at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get upset in addition to being amused.

Think about it from this perspective. The amounts being wasted in this example are equal to the entire federal tax burden for several American families.

Do any of us think it’s okay to confiscate so much of their income and then have it squandered so pointlessly and irresponsibly?

Besides, the foreign aid bureaucracy is also capable of wasting huge amounts of money.

But remember that the federal government doesn’t have a monopoly on foolish and stupid behavior.

Here’s another example of inane government behavior. And you won’t be surprised that it took place in California because, as Reason reports, it involved a raid against an establishment serving probiotic tea.

Last Friday, an undercover officer from the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) “infiltrated the temple,” Vice reports, “clearing the way for a 9 PM incursion by five officers.” What manner of crazy bootlegged hooch were the agents there to confiscate? Kombucha. Blueberry kombucha. For the uninitiated, kombucha is a type of carbonated, probiotic tea, popular among hipsters and health foodies. It’s made by mixing regular tea, sugar, and a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” known as the “mother” and letting the whole business ferment for a few days. The end result is a somewhat vinegar-like beverage that’s packed with good bacteria (à la yogurt) and ever-so-slightly alcoholic….But because the tea contains slightly above 0.5 percent alcohol, it requires a special license to sell say ABC agents, who cited a Full Circle rep for misdemeanor selling alcohol without a license.

Reminds me of the story about the federal milk police at the FDA. Or the federal bagpipe police at our borders.

Don’t these bureaucrats have anything better to do with their time (and our money)?!?

P.S. How could I forget all the examples of insane anti-gun political correctness in government schools?

P.P.S. Or the examples of unconstrained stupidity at the TSA?

P.P.P.S. And the odd collection of “human rights” that governments have created.

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There’s a Terror Wing in the Moocher Hall of Fame, so I guess it stands to reason that I should create a French Wing of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

After all, few nations can compete with France in the contest to over-tax and over-spend.

And a lot of that spending goes to subsidize a bloated bureaucracy.

Moreover, I suspect many members of that bureaucracy work in jobs that shouldn’t exist and get wildly over-compensated.

Just last month, for instance, I honored one of those bureaucrats with membership in the Hall of Fame because she managed to squander an average of $145 of other people’s money on taxis each and every day (including weekends) even though she also had a taxpayer-provided car and chauffeur!

Wow. And she wasted that much money while working in a position (archivist for the country’s government-run media operation) that never should have been created.

Speaking of which, here are some amusing (only amusing because I’m not a French taxpayer) snippets from a story in the U.K.-based Times about some other ultra-spoiled French bureaucrats.

The 40 members of the Académie Française have…lavish perks… Their remuneration arrangements…include free flats in some of Paris’s most sought-after districts… The report, by the Court of Accounts, is likely to add to widespread resentment of a Parisian elite seen as clinging to its privileges.

The pay levels for these über-bureaucrats are absurd, but the perks are downright astounding.

Many [flats] were made available without justification to the intellectuals who belonged to the academies and their staff, the report said.Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the historian who is its “permanent secretary”, received €104,768 a year and a free flat in Paris, the report said. The academy justifies her remuneration on the ground that her work is so great that she has to “renounce all literary work”. However, Mrs Carrère d’Encausse has produced nine books, largely on Russia, her specialist subject, since being given the post in 1999. …There is also criticism of Hugues Galls, the opera director who sits on the Academy of Fine Arts and runs one of its properties — the house and gardens where Claude Monet lived. The report said he received a BMW 125i, bought by the academy for €40,461. His garage fees of €1,700 a month are paid by the institution.

Hey, nice “work” if you can get it.

No wonder the OECD is based in Paris. The culture is perfect for elitist leeches.

And it shows that my First Theorem of Government applies in France as well as the United States.

The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that the French elite is slowly waking up to the reality that the government is running out of victims to finance such special-interest perks.

P.S. I rarely get to celebrate good news, so let’s enjoy this moment because the government thugs who stole $107,000 from Lyndon McLellan are being forced to return the money.

Reason has the wonderful details.

…the federal prosecutor assigned to the case was peeved. “Your client needs to resolve this or litigate it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve West wrote in an email message. “But publicity about it doesn’t help. It just ratchets up feelings in the agency. My offer is to return 50% of the money. The offer is good until March 30th COB.” That deadline came and went, but Lyndon McLellan, the convenience store owner who lost $107,000 to the IRS because it considered his bank deposits suspiciously small, refused to fold. That turned out to be a smart move, because West was bluffing. Yesterday the government agreed to drop the case and return all of McLellan’s money.

This is great news, but notice what happened. The Assistant U.S. Attorney initially tried to threaten this innocent man.

But as the case got more publicity, the hack bureaucrat was forced to relent, in much the same way cockroaches scurry into crevices when the kitchen light is turned on.

By the way, if anyone knows Steve West, make sure to let him know that he’s a despicable human being. I bet he’s friends with Robert Murphy and Michael Wolfensohn.

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America has a giant long-run problem largely caused by poorly designed entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

So when I wrote last month about proposals by some Democrats to expand Social Security, I was less than enthusiastic.

…demographic changes and ill-designed programs will combine to dramatically expand the size of the public sector over the next few decades. So it’s really amazing that some politicians, led by the clownish Elizabeth Warren, want to dig the hole deeper. …I’m surprised demagogues such as Elizabeth Warren haven’t rallied behind a plan to simply add a bunch of zeroes to the IOUs already sitting in the so-called Social Security Trust Fund. …If Hillary winds up endorsing Warren’s reckless plan, it will give us another data point for our I-can’t-believe-she-said-that collection.

But it turns out I may have been too nice in my analysis.

As reported by USA Today, independent researchers have discovered that Social Security is even more bankrupt than suggested by official estimates.

New studies from Harvard and Dartmouth researchers find that the SSA’s actuarial forecasts have been consistently overstating the financial health of the program’s trust funds since 2000. “These biases are getting bigger and they are substantial,” said Gary King, co-author of the studies and director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “[Social Security] is going to be insolvent before everyone thinks.” …Once the trust funds are drained, annual revenues from payroll tax would be projected to cover only three-quarters of scheduled Social Security benefits through 2088.

By the way, I’m not overly enamored with this analysis since it is based on the assumption that the Social Security Trust Fund is real when it’s really nothing but a collection of IOUs.

But if you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe the Clinton Administration, which admitted back in 1999 (see page 337) that the Trust Fund is just a bookkeeping gimmick.

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures–but only in a bookkeeping sense. …They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

In other words, what really matters is that Social Security spending is climbing too fast and consuming an ever-larger share of economic output.

That means – in the absence of reform – that more and more money will be diverted from the economy’s productive sector, in the form of taxes or borrowing, to finance benefits.

And when I write “more and more money,” that’s not a throwaway statement.

Returning to the USA Today report, academic experts warn that the long-term shortfall in the program is understated because it is based on 75-year estimates even though the program doesn’t have an expiration date.

The bigger problem with the Social Security Administration is not disclosure, it’s accounting, said Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor of economics… Kotlikoff…wants the agency to calculate its liabilities using fiscal gap accounting, which considers the difference between the government’s projected financial obligations and the present value of all projected future tax and other revenue. …Under this accounting system, SSA’s projected unfunded liabilities would be $24.9 trillion (instead of the $10.6 trillion projected in 2088). …17 Nobel Prize-winning economists have endorsed Kotlikoff’s push for the SSA and other government agencies to use the fiscal gap accounting method more broadly. “We have a situation that is like Enron accounting,” Kotlikoff said. “And the public doesn’t want to hear about it.”

At the risk of being pedantic, I’m also not enamored with either approach mentioned in the above passage.

Sure, we should acknowledge all expenses and not arbitrarily assume the program disappears after 75 years, but the approach used to calculate “unfunded liabilities” is artificial since it is based on how much money would need to be invested today to finance future promised benefits (whether for 75 years or forever).

Needless to say, governments don’t budget by setting aside trillions of dollars to meet future expenses. Social Security, like other programs, is funded on a pay-as-you-go basis.

That’s why the most appropriate way to measure the shortfall is to take all projected future deficits, adjust them for inflation, and calculate the total. When you do that, the Social Security shortfall is a staggering $40 trillion.

And that’s based on just a 75-year estimate, so the real number is much higher.

Though keep in mind that this is just an estimate of the fiscal shortfall. What really matters is the total level of spending, not how much is financed with red ink.

Which is why the only real answer is genuine reform.

For further information, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity on the need to modernize the system with personal retirement accounts.

But if you prefer to trust politicians, you can always support the left’s favored solution.

P.S. You can enjoy some previous Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

P.P.S. The “Trust Fund” is real only in the sense that the government’s legal authority to pay benefits will be constrained when the IOUs are used up. That’s why the USA Today article says that the government at that point would be able to pay only about 3/4ths of promised benefits (though one imagines that future politicians will simply override that technical provision and require full payments).

P.P.P.S. Many nations have adopted genuine reform based on private retirement savings, including Australia, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Chile, and The Netherlands.

P.P.P.P.S. Because of lower life expectancies, African-Americans are very disadvantaged by the Social Security system. A system of personal accounts presumably wouldn’t help them live longer, but at least they would have a nest egg to pass on to their kids.

P.P.P.P.P.S. And don’t fall for the false argument that financial markets are too unstable for personal retirement accounts

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I’ve openly stated that there are tax-hiking budget deals that theoretically would be attractive.

But notice that “theoretically” is part of that sentence.

That’s because in the real world, tax hikes have a poisonous effect on fiscal policy. Instead of being the lubricant that produces concessions from the big-government crowd, the prospect of additional revenue is like putting blood in the water when hungry sharks are circling.

The bottom line is that trying to cure deficits with taxes is like trying to cure alcoholics by giving them keys to a liquor store.

Indeed, the New York Times accidentally proved my point by putting together a chart showing that the only successful budget deal was the one that cut taxes instead of raising them.

So this is why I’m a huge fan of Americans for Tax Reform’s no-tax-hike pledge.

Simply stated, I want to restrain – and hopefully reduce – the burden of government spending. And that definitely won’t happen if politicians think more revenue is an option.

So I get excited any time voters express the same sentiment. As such, you can imagine my feeling of happiness that Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected a big tax increase that was supported almost the entire political establishment.

Here are some of the joyous details from a Detroit Free Press report.

With all counties reporting, 1.4 million Michiganders voted no on Proposal 1 while less than 351,000 voted yes, according to the Michigan Secretary of State’s office. The 80-20 rejection may be the most one-sided loss for a proposed constitutional amendment in state history. …Proposal 1 would have hiked the state sales tax to 7% from 6%, taken the sales tax off fuel sales, and hiked fuel taxes — raising close to $1.3 billion extra for roads. When fully implemented, the plan would have also generated about $200 million a year more for schools; $116 million for transit and rail; sent $111 million more to local governments; and given a $260-million tax break to low- and moderate-income families through restoration of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

If the Michigan earned-income credit works the same way as the one in Washington, it’s not a tax break. It’s simply a wage subsidy, a form of redistribution that gets laundered through the tax code.

But that’s not terribly relevant for purposes of today’s discussion. What really matters is that politicians were pushing a big increase in the overall burden of spending financed by a big increase in the overall burden of taxation.

And they had special interests on their side, which enabled them to out-spend the pr0-taxpayer side by a margin of about 20-1.

the Safe Roads Yes committee, which pushed for a yes vote on Proposal 1, reported raising $9.6 million to spend on its campaign. Of that, $5.8 million came from the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, a lobbying group for road builders and their suppliers. …The main no committee, the Coalition Against Higher Taxes and Special Interest Deals, reported raising just under $500,000 as of Monday.

But special-interest money doesn’t necessarily translate into votes. At least it didn’t in Michigan on Tuesday.

By the way, I’m not claiming voters always make the right choices. As we saw from referenda in Oregon and California, they can sometimes be lured into voting yes on tax hikes if they’re told “the rich” are the only ones who will pay.

John Miller of Hillsdale College (site of my flat tax v. fair tax debate) explains that the politicians in Lansing were simply too greedy. Writing for the Wall Street Journal before the vote, Miller suggests voters were unhappy that they were being asked for a big tax hike, when 40 percent of the money was going to be diverted to non-transportation purposes.

…the measure would generate more than $2 billion in revenue a year. Yet the amount that would go to transportation—mostly roads and bridges, but also bike paths, light rail and “streetscape” projects that aim to improve the look of downtown areas—is only about $1.2 billion. …In other words, taxpayers will get less than $1.2 billion in roadwork for the price of more than $2 billion.

How typical. Politician proposed a tax hike for one reason, but then hijacked their own plan and made it a Christmas tree of special-interest spending.

P.S. Here are my five policy and five political reasons against higher taxes in Washington.

P.P.S. The international evidence also shows that higher taxes are a recipe for bigger government and more debt.

P.P.P.S. I don’t fixate too much on the bias of the establishment media. It’s annoying, to be sure, but it doesn’t help to get all agitated about things outside of my control. That being said, I thought it was very revealing that the home pages of both the New York Times and Washington Post didn’t have any stories on the Michigan referendum. If the vote had gone the other way, I feel 99 percent confident in stating that the story would have been prominently displayed with lots of “analysis” about why the vote was hugely important.

P.P.P.P.S. Needless to say, Republicans who refuse to take the no-tax-hike pledge should be viewed with considerable suspicion.

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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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For the people of China, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news, as illustrated by the chart, is that economic freedom has increased dramatically since 1980. This liberalization has lifted hundreds of millions from abject poverty.

The bad news is that China still has a long way to go if it wants to become a rich, market-oriented nation. Notwithstanding big gains since 1980, it still ranks in the lower-third of nations for economic freedom.

Yes, there’s been impressive growth, but it started from a very low level. As a result, per-capita economic output is still just a fraction of American levels.

So let’s examine what’s needed to boost Chinese prosperity.

If you look at the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, there are five major policy categories. As you can see from this table, China’s weakest category is “size of government.” I’ve circled the most relevant data point.

The bottom line is that China could – and should – boost its overall ranking by improving its size-of-government score. And that means reducing the burden of government spending and lowering tax rates.

With this in mind, I was very interested to see that the International Monetary Fund just published a study entitled, “China: How Can Revenue Reforms Contribute to Inclusive and Sustainable Growth.”

Did this mean the IMF was recommending pro-growth tax reform? After reading the following sentence, I was hopeful.

We highlight tax policies that can facilitate economic transition to high income status, promote fiscal sustainability and make growth more inclusive.

After all, surely you make the “transition to high income status” with low tax rates rather than high tax rates, right?

Moreover, the study also acknowledged that China’s tax burden already is fairly substantial.

Tax revenue has accounted for about 22 percent of GDP in 2013…the overall tax burden is similar to the tax-to-GDP ratio for other Asian economies such as Australia, Japan, and Korea.

So what did the IMF recommend? A flat tax? Elimination of certain taxes? Reductions in double taxation? Lowering the overall tax burden?

Hardly.

The bureaucrats actually want China to become more like France and Greece.

I’m not joking. The IMF study actually wants people to believe that making the income tax more punitive will somehow boost prosperity.

Increasing the de facto progressivity of the individual income tax would promote more inclusive growth.

Amazingly, the IMF wants more “progressivity” even though the folks in the top 20 percent are the only ones who pay any income tax under the current system.

…around 80 percent of urban wage earners are not subject to the individual income tax because of the high basic personal allowance.

But a more punitive income tax is just the beginning. The IMF wants further tax hikes.

Broadening the base and unifying rates would increase VAT revenue considerably. …tax based on fossil fuel carbon emission rates can be introduced. …the current levies on local air pollutants such as SO2 and NOX emissions and small particulates could be significantly increased.

What’s especially discouraging is that the IMF explicitly wants a higher tax burden to finance an increase in the burden of government spending.

According to the proposed reform scenario, China could potentially aim to increase public expenditures by around 1 percent of GDP for education, 2‒3 percent of GDP for health care, and another 3–4 percent of GDP to fully finance the basic old-age pension and to gradually meet the legacy costs of current obligations. These would add up to additional social expenditures of around 7‒8 percent of GDP by 2030… The size of additional social spending is large but affordable as part of a package of fiscal reforms.

Indeed, the study explicitly says China should become more like the failed European welfare states that dominate the OECD.

Compared to OECD economies, China has considerable scope to increase the redistributive role of fiscal policy. …These revenue reforms serve as a key part of a package of reforms to boost social spending.

You won’t be surprised to learn, by the way, that the study contains zero evidence (because there isn’t any) to back up the assertion that a more punitive tax system will lead to more growth. Likewise, there’s zero evidence (because there isn’t any) to support the claim that a higher burden of government spending will boost prosperity.

No wonder the IMF is sometimes referred to as the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy.

P.S. If you want to learn lessons from East Asia, look at the strong performance of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, all of which provide very impressive examples of sustained growth enabled by small government and free markets.

P.P.S. I was greatly amused when the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund mocked the Europeans for destructive welfare state policies.

P.P.P.S. Click here if you want some morbid humor about China’s pseudo-communist regime.

P.P.P.P.S. Though I give China credit for trimming at least one of the special privileges provided to government bureaucrats.

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