Archive for the ‘International Monetary Fund’ Category

I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund. The bureaucracy was created in 1944 to manage and coordinate the system of fixed exchange rates created as part of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. But once fixed exchange rates disappeared, the over-funded bureaucracy cleverly adopted a new rationale for its existence and its main role now is to bail out insolvent nations (what that really means, of course, is that it exists to bail out big banks that foolishly lend money to profligate third-world governments).

As part of this new mission, the IMF acts like the Pied Piper of tax hikes. The bureaucrats parachute into nations, refinance and restructure the debt of those countries, and insist on a bunch of tax increases in hopes that more revenue will then be available to service the new debt.

Needless to say, this is not exactly a recipe for growth and prosperity. The private sector in these countries gets hammered with tax increases, the big banks in rich nations get indirect bailouts, and the real problem of bloated government generally is left to fester and metastasize.

This is why I’ve referred to the IMF as the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy. But the bureaucracy is bad for other reasons. It also has decided that it should grade all nations on their economic policies and it routinely uses that self-assigned authority to recommend big tax hikes all over the world. Including lots of tax increases in the United States.

The IMF even tries to interfere with American elections. Just recently, the chief bureaucrat of the organization launched a not-too-subtle attack on Donald Trump.

Though in this case, which involved trade barriers, the IMF actually is on the right side (the bureaucracy generally has a pro-tax bias, but the one big exception is that it favors lower taxes on global trade).

Anyhow, the IMF’s Managing Director warned that additional protectionist taxes on global trade threaten the global economy. And even though she didn’t specifically mention the Republican nominee, you can see from the various headlines I’m sharing that reporters put 2 + 2 together and realized that Ms Lagarde was criticizing Trump.

And he deserves condemnation. The post-World War II shift to lower trade taxes has been a big victory for economic freedom (indeed, tariff reductions have helped offset the damage caused by increasingly bad fiscal policy over the past several decades).

Nonetheless, there is something quite unseemly about an international bureaucracy taking sides in an American election (who do they think they are, the IRS?). Especially since American taxpayers underwrite the biggest share of the IMF’s activities.

Let’s look specifically at an analysis of the IMF’s actions from the UK-based Guardian.

The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has launched a thinly veiled attack on the anti-free-trade sentiments expressed by US presidential candidate Donald Trump… Lagarde made it clear she strongly opposed the Republican candidate’s policies, which include higher US tariffs and a barrier along the border with Mexico. …“There is a growing risk of politicians seeking office by promising to ‘get tough’ with foreign trade partners through punitive tariffs or other restrictions on trade…” She added that throughout history there had been arguments about trade. “But history clearly tells us that closing borders or increasing protectionism is not the way to go…”

By the way, while I agree with her comments on trade, her comments about a “barrier along the border with Mexico” reek of hypocrisy.

Christine Lagarde criticises his policies including plans for…a US-Mexico border wall.

Those who have visited the IMF’s lavish headquarters can confirm that there is a very heavily guarded barrier separating the IMF from the hoi polloi and peasantry of Washington.

Call me crazy, but a bureaucracy with lots of security to prevent unauthorized people from entering its building is in no position to lecture a nation for wanting security to prevent unauthorized people from crossing its borders. And I say this as someone who generally favors immigration.

But let’s set that issue aside. There’s actually a very serious sin of omission in the IMF’s analysis that needs to be addressed.

The international bureaucracy (correctly) opposes trade taxes and wants to build on the progress of recent decades by further reducing government-imposed barriers to cross-border economic activity. As noted above, this is the right position and I applaud the IMF’s defense of lower tariffs and expanded trade.

That being said, the level of protectionism has fallen significantly in the post-World War II era. In other words, trade taxes already are reasonably low. Yes, it would be better if they were even lower (ideally zero, like in Hong Kong).

My problem (or, to be more accurate, one of my problems) with the IMF is that the bureaucracy acts as if the world economy is hanging in the balance if there’s some sort of increase in the currently low tax burden on trade.

Yet what about the tax burden on behaviors that actually generate the income people use to purchase goods from other nations? Top tax rates on personal income average more than 40 percent in the developed world, dwarfing the average tariffs of trade.

And the burden on income that is saved and invested is even higher because of double taxation, which is especially destructive since all economic theories – including Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a key to long-run growth and higher living standards (i.e., the ability to buy more goods, including those produced in other nations).

So here’s the question that must be asked: If it is bad to have very modest taxes on the share of people’s income that is used to buy goods produced in other nations, then why isn’t it even worse to have very onerous taxes on the productive behaviors that generate that income?

In other words, if the IMF is correct (and it is) to criticize Trump for threatening to increase the modest tax rates that are imposed on global trade, then why doesn’t the IMF criticize Hillary Clinton for threatening to increase the rather harsh tax rates that are imposed on working, saving, and investment?

Maybe Madame Lagarde’s army of flunkies and servants (one of the many perks she gets, in addition to a munificent tax-free salary) can explain that sauce for a goose is also sauce for a gander.

By the way, I can’t resist addressing one final aspect to this story. The Guardian‘s report notes that Lagarde wants to offset the supposedly harmful impact of trade by further increasing the size and scope of government.

…the solution was for governments to provide direct financial support for those with low skills through higher minimum wages, more generous welfare states, investment in education and a crackdown on tax evasion.

Wow, that’s a lot of economic illiteracy packed into one sentence fragment.

Now you understand why I refer to the IMF as the dumpster fire of global economics.

P.S. While the IMF likes to push bad policy for the United States, the bureaucracy’s proposals for China are akin to a declaration of economic warfare.

P.P.S. The IMF’s flip-flop on infrastructure spending reveals a lot about the bureaucracy’s inner workings.

P.P.P.S. While the IMF often produces sloppy and dishonest research, every so often the professional economists on the staff slip something  useful past the political types. Though my all-time-favorite bit of IMF research was the study that inadvertently showed why a value-added tax is so dangerous.

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Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. There are lots of things you should know – most bad, though some good – about international bureaucracies.

That being said, regular readers know that I get very frustrated with the statist policy agendas of both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I especially object to the way these international bureaucracies are cheerleaders for bigger government and higher tax burdens. Even though they ostensibly exist to promote greater levels of prosperity!

I’ve written on these issues, ad nauseam, but perhaps dry analysis is only part of what’s needed to get the message across. Maybe some clever image can explain the issue to a broader audience (something I’ve done before with cartoons and images about the rise and fall of the welfare state, the misguided fixation on income distribution, etc).

It took awhile, but I eventually came up with (what I hope is) a clever idea. And when a former Cato intern with artistic skill, Jonathan Babington-Heina, agreed to do me a favor and take the concept in my head and translate it to paper, here are the results.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

Excessive government is the main problem plaguing the global economy. But the international bureaucracies, for all intents and purposes, represent governments. The bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD need to please politicians in order to continue enjoying their lavish budgets and exceedingly generous tax-free salaries.

So when there is some sort of problem in the global economy, they are reluctant to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens (even if the economists working for these organizations sometimes produce very good research on fiscal issues).

Instead, when it’s time to make recommendations, they push an agenda that is good for the political elite but bad for the private sector. Which is exactly what I’m trying to demonstrate in the cartoon,

But let’s not merely rely on a cartoon to make this point.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett discuss the intersection of economic policy and international bureaucracies. They start by explaining that these organizations would promote jurisdictional competition if they were motivated by a desire to boost growth.

…economic theory has a lot to say about how they should function. …they haven’t achieved all of their promise, primarily because those bodies have yet to fully understand the role they need to play in the interconnected world. The key insight harkens back to a dusty economics seminar room in the early 1950s, when University of Michigan graduate student Charles Tiebout…said that governments could be driven to efficient behavior if people can move. …This observation, which Tiebout developed fully in a landmark paper published in 1956, led to an explosion of work by economists, much of it focusing on…many bits of evidence that confirm the important beneficial effects that can emerge when governments compete. …A flatter world should make the competition between national governments increasingly like the competition between smaller communities. Such competition can provide the world’s citizens with an insurance policy against the out-of-control growth of massive and inefficient bureaucracies.

Using the European Union as an example, Hubbard and Hassett point out the grim results when bureaucracies focus on policies designed to boost the power of governments rather than the vitality of the market.

…as Brexit indicates, the EU has not successfully focused solely on the potentially positive role it could play. Indeed, as often as not, one can view the actions of the EU government as being an attempt to form a cartel to harmonize policies across member states, and standing in the way of, rather than advancing, competition. …an EU that acts as a competition-stifling cartel will grow increasingly unpopular, and more countries will leave it.

They close with a very useful suggestion.

If the EU instead focuses on maximizing mobility and enhancing the competition between states, allowing the countries to compete on regulation, taxation, and in other policy areas, then the union will become a populist’s dream and the best economic friend of its citizens.

Unfortunately, I fully expect this sage advice to fall upon deaf ears. The crowd in Brussels knows that their comfortable existence is dependent on pleasing politicians from national governments.

And the same is true for the bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD.

The only practical solution is to have national governments cut off funding so the bureaucracies disappear.

But, to cite just one example, why would Obama allow that when these bureaucracies go through a lot of effort to promote his statist agenda?

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The International Monetary Fund is a left-leaning bureaucracy that was set up to monitor the fixed-exchange-rate monetary system created after World War II.

Unsurprisingly, when that system broke down and the world shifted to floating exchange rates, the IMF didn’t go away. Instead, it created a new role for itself as self-styled guardian of economic stability.

Which is a bit of a joke since the international bureaucracy is most infamous for its relentless advocacy of higher taxes in economically stressed nations. So much so that I’ve labeled the IMF the Dr. Kevorkian of the world economy.

Or if that reference is a bit outdated for younger readers, let’s just say the IMF is the dumpster fire of international economics. Heck, if I was in Beijing, I would consider the bureaucracy’s recommendations for China an act of war.

To get an idea of the IMF’s ideological bias, let’s review it’s new report designed to discredit economic liberty (a.k.a., “neoliberalism” in the European sense or “classical liberalism” to Americans).

Here’s their definition.

The neoliberal agenda—a label used more by critics than by the architects of the policies— rests on two main planks. The first is increased competition—achieved through deregulation and the opening up of domestic markets, including financial markets, to foreign competition. The second is a smaller role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt.

The authors describe the first plank accurately, but they mischaracterize the second plank.

At the risk of nitpicking, I would say “neoliberals” such as myself are much more direct than they imply. We want to achieve “a smaller role for the state” by reducing the burden of government spending.

Sure, we want to privatize government-controlled assets, but that’s mostly for reasons of economic efficiency rather than budgetary savings. And because we care about what actually works, we’re fans of spending caps rather than balanced budget rules.

But let’s set all that aside and get back to the report.

The IMF authors point out that governments have been moving in the right direction in recent decades.

There has been a strong and widespread global trend toward neoliberalism since the 1980s.

That sounds like good news.

And the report even includes a couple of graphs to show the trend toward free markets and limited government.

And the bureaucrats even concede that free markets and small government generate some good results.

There is much to cheer in the neoliberal agenda. The expansion of global trade has rescued millions from abject poverty. Foreign direct investment has often been a way to transfer technology and know-how to developing economies. Privatization of state-owned enterprises has in many instances led to more efficient provision of services and lowered the fiscal burden on governments.

But then the authors get to their real point. They don’t like unfettered capital flows and they don’t like so-called austerity.

However, there are aspects of the neoliberal agenda that have not delivered as expected. …removing restrictions on the movement of capital across a country’s borders (so-called capital account liberalization); and fiscal consolidation, sometimes called “austerity,” which is shorthand for policies to reduce fiscal deficits and debt levels.

Looking at these two aspects of neoliberalism, the IMF proposes “three disquieting conclusions.”

I’m much more worried about stagnation and poverty than I am about inequality, so part of the IMF’s analysis can be dismissed.

Indeed, based on the sloppiness of previous IMF work on inequality, one might be tempted to dismiss the entire report.

But let’s look at whether the authors have a point. Are there negative economic consequences for nations that allow open capital flows and/or impose budgetary restraint?

They argue that passive financial flows (indirect investment) can be destabilizing.

Some capital inflows, such as foreign direct investment—which may include a transfer of technology or human capital—do seem to boost long-term growth. But the impact of other flows—such as portfolio investment and banking and especially hot, or speculative, debt inflows—seem neither to boost growth nor allow the country to better share risks with its trading partners… Although growth benefits are uncertain, costs in terms of increased economic volatility and crisis frequency seem more evident. Since 1980, there have been about 150 episodes of surges in capital inflows in more than 50 emerging market economies…about 20 percent of the time, these episodes end in a financial crisis, and many of these crises are associated with large output declines… In addition to raising the odds of a crash, financial openness has distributional effects, appreciably raising inequality. …there is increased acceptance of controls to limit short-term debt flows that are viewed as likely to lead to—or compound—a financial crisis. While not the only tool available—exchange rate and financial policies can also help—capital controls are a viable, and sometimes the only, option when the source of an unsustainable credit boom is direct borrowing from abroad.

I certainly agree that there have been various crises in different nations, but I’m wondering whether the IMF is focusing on the symptoms rather than the underlying diseases.

What happened in the various nations, for instance, to trigger sudden capital flight? That seems to be a much more important question.

In some cases, such as Greece, the problem obviously isn’t capital flight. It’s the reckless spending by Greek politicians that created a fiscal crisis.

In other cases, such as Estonia, there was a bubble because of an overheated property market, and there’s no question the economy took a hit when that bubble popped.

But there’s a very strong case that Estonia’s open economy has generated plenty of strong growth over the years to compensate for that blip.

And it’s worth noting that criticisms of Estonia’s market-oriented policies often are based on grotesque inaccuracies, as was the case when Paul Krugman tried to blame the 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

So I’m very skeptical of the IMF’s claim that capital controls are warranted. That’s the type of policy designed to insulate governments from the consequences of bad policy.

Now let’s shift to the fiscal policy issue. The IMF report correctly states that “Curbing the size of the state is another aspect of the neoliberal agenda.”

But the authors make a big (perhaps deliberate) mistake by then blaming neoliberals for adverse consequences associated with the “austerity” imposed by various governments.

Austerity policies not only generate substantial welfare costs due to supply-side channels, they also hurt demand—and thus worsen employment and unemployment. …in practice, episodes of fiscal consolidation have been followed, on average, by drops rather than by expansions in output. On average, a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP increases the long-term unemployment rate by 0.6 percentage point.

The problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t differentiate between tax increases and spending cuts.

And since much of the “austerity” is the former variety rather than the latter, especially in Europe, it borders on malicious for the IMF to blame neoliberals (who want less spending) for the economic consequences of IMF-endorsed policies (mostly higher taxes).

Especially since research from the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (!) show that spending restraint is the pro-growth way of dealing with a fiscal crisis.

Let’s now look at what the IMF authors suggest for future policy. More taxes and spending!

…policymakers should be more open to redistribution than they are. …And fiscal consolidation strategies—when they are needed—could be designed to minimize the adverse impact on low-income groups. But in some cases, the untoward distributional consequences will have to be remedied after they occur by using taxes and government spending to redistribute income. Fortunately, the fear that such policies will themselves necessarily hurt growth is unfounded.

Wow, the last couple of sentences are remarkable. The bureaucrats want readers to believe that a bigger fiscal burden of government want have any adverse consequences.

That’s a spectacular level of anti-empiricism. I guess they want us to believe that nations such as France are economically stronger economy than places such as Hong Kong.


Last but not least, here’s a final excerpt that’s worth sharing just because of these two sentences.

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said the institution believed that the U.S. Congress was right to raise the country’s debt ceiling “because the point is not to contract the economy by slashing spending brutally now as recovery is picking up.”  …Policymakers, and institutions like the IMF that advise them, must be guided not by faith, but by evidence of what has worked.

We’re supposed to believe the IMF is guided by evidence when the chief bureaucrat relies on Keynesian theory to make a dishonest argument. I wish that “slashing spending” was one of the options on the table when the debt limit was raised, but the fight was at the margins over how rapidly the burden of spending should climb.

But if Lagarde can make that argument with a straight face, I guess she deserves her massive tax-free compensation package.

P.S. Since IMF economists have concluded (two times!) that spending caps are the most effective fiscal rule, I really wonder whether the authors of the above study were being deliberately dishonest when they blamed advocates of lower spending for the negative impact of higher taxes.

P.P.S. I was greatly amused in 2014 when the IMF took two diametrically opposed positions on infrastructure spending in a three-month period.

P.P.P.S. The one silver lining to the dark cloud of the IMF is that the bureaucrats inadvertently generated some very powerful evidence against the VAT.

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with something positive. IMF researchers last year found that decentralized government works better.

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I thought the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development had cemented its status as the world’s worst international bureaucracy when it called for a Keynesian spending binge even though the global economy is still suffering from previous schemes for government “stimulus.”

But the International Monetary Fund is causing me to reconsider my views.

First, some background about the IMF. Almost all of the problems occur when the political appointees at the top of the organization make policy choices. That’s when you get the IMF’s version of junk science, with laughable claims about inequality and growth, bizarrely inconsistent arguments about infrastructure spending, calls for massive energy taxes,

By contrast, you do get some worthwhile research from the career economists (on issues such as spending caps, fiscal decentralization, and the Laffer Curve).

But that kind of professional analysis gets almost no attention. The IMF’s grossly overpaid (and untaxed!) Managing Director seemingly devotes all her energy to pushing and publicizing bad policies.

The Wall Street Journal reports, for instance, that the IMF is following the OECD down the primrose path of fiscal recklessness and is also urging nations to throw good money after bad with another Keynesian spending spree.

The world’s largest economies should agree to a coordinated increase in government spending to counter the growing risk of a deeper global economic slowdown, the International Monetary Fund said Wednesday. …the IMF is pushing G-20 finance ministers and central bankers meeting in Shanghai later this week to agree on bold new commitments for public spending.

Fortunately, at least one major economy seems uninterested in the IMF’s snake-oil medicine.

The IMF’s calls will face some resistance in Shanghai. Fiscal hawk Germany has been reluctant to heed long-issued calls by the U.S., the IMF and others to help boost the eurozone’s weak recovery with public spending.

Hooray for the Germans. I don’t particularly like fiscal policy in that nation, but I at least give the Germans credit for understanding at the end of the day that 2 + 2 = 4.

I’m also hoping the British government, which is being pressured by the IMF, also resists pressure to adopt Dr. Kevorkian economic policy.

The International Monetary Fund has urged the UK to ease back on austerity… IMF officials said the Treasury had done enough to stabilise the government’s finances for it to embark on extra investment spending… The Treasury declined to comment on the IMF report. The report said: “Flexibility in the fiscal framework should be used to modify the pace of adjustment in the event of weaker demand growth.” …Osborne has resisted attempts to coordinate spending by G20 countries to boost growth, preferring to focus on reducing the deficit in public spending to achieve a balanced budget by 2020.

But you’ll be happy to know the IMF doesn’t discriminate.

It balances out calls for bad policy in the developed world with calls for bad policy in other places as well. And the one constant theme is that taxes always should be increased.

I wrote last year about how the IMF wants to sabotage China’s economy with tax hikes.

Well, here are some excerpts from a Dow Jones report on the IMF proposing higher tax burdens, tax harmonization, and bigger government in the Middle East.

The head of the International Monetary Fund on Monday urged energy exporters of the Middle East to raise more taxes… “These economies need to strengthen their fiscal frameworks…by boosting non-hydrocarbon sources of revenues,” Christine Lagarde said at a finance forum in the United Arab Emirates capital. …Ms. Lagarde called on the Persian Gulf states to introduce a valued added tax, which, even at a relatively low rate, could lift gross domestic product by 2%, she said. …Ms. Lagarde, who on Friday clinched a second five-year term as the IMF’s managing director, also urged governments in the region to consider raising corporate income taxes and even prepare for personal income taxes. Income taxes in particular could prove a sensitive move in the Gulf, which in recent decades has attracted millions of workers from abroad by offering, among other things, light-touch tax regimes. Ms. Lagarde also wants to discourage “overly aggressive tax competition” among countries that allow international companies and wealthy individuals to shift their wealth to lower tax destinations.

Wow, Ms. Lagarde may be the world’s most government-centric person, putting even Bernie Sanders in her dust.

She managed, in a single speech, to argue that higher taxes “strengthen…fiscal frameworks” even though that approach eventually leads to massive fiscal instability. She also apparently claimed that a value-added tax could boost economic output, an idea so utterly absurd that I hope the reporter simply mischaracterized her comments and that instead she merely asserted that a VAT could transfer an additional 2 percent of the economy’s output into government coffers. And she even urged the imposition of income taxes, which almost certainly would be a recipe for turning thriving economies such as Dubai back into backward jurisdictions where prosperity is limited to the oil-dependent ruling class.

And it goes without saying that the IMF wants to export bad policy to every corner of the world.

The IMF chief said taxation allows governments to mobilize their revenues. She noted, however, that the process can be undermined by “overly aggressive tax competition” among countries, and companies abusing the system of international taxation. …She argued that the automatic exchange of taxpayer information among governments could make it harder for businesses to follow the scheme.

And don’t forget that the IMF oftentimes will offer countries money to implement bad policy, like when the bureaucrats bribed Albania to get rid of its flat tax.

P.S. Now perhaps you’ll understand why I was so disappointed that last year’s budget deal included a provision to expand the IMF’s authority to push bad policy around the world.

P.P.S. In other words, American taxpayers are being forced to subsidize the IMF so it can advocate higher taxes on American taxpayers! Sort of like having to buy a gun for the robber who wants to steal your money.

P.P.P.S. Though I’ll also be grateful that the IMF inadvertently and accidentally provided some very powerful data against the value-added tax.

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What were the most noteworthy events from 2015?

Regarding bad news, there’s unfortunately a lot of competition. But if I’m forced to pick the very worst developments, here’s my list.

Resuscitation of the Export-Import Bank – I did a premature victory dance last year when I celebrated the expiration of the Export-Import Bank’s authority.  I should have known that corrupt cronyism was hard to extinguish. Sure enough, Republicans and Democrats conspired to re-authorize the Ex-Im Bank and transfer wealth from ordinary Americans to politically connected corporations.

Expansion of IMF authority – I also did a premature victory dance in 2014 when I lauded the fact that Congress did not approve increased bailout authority for the International Monetary Fund. Sadly, as part of the year-end spending agreement, Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s authority so it could continue to push for higher taxes around the world.

Busting the spending caps (again) – When I wrote last August that maintaining the spending caps was a key test of GOP integrity, I should have known that they would get a failing grade. Sure enough, Republicans deliberately fumbled the ball at the goal line and agreed to higher spending. Again.

Supreme Court ignores law to bail out Obamacare (again) – Back in 2012, the Supreme Court had a chance to rule whether Obamacare was an impermissible expansion of the power of the federal government. In a truly odious decision, Chief Justice John Roberts ignored the Constitution’s limits on federal powers and decided we could be coerced to buy health insurance. Last year, he did it again, this time by bailing out a key part of Obamacare by deciding to arbitrarily ignore the wording of the law.

Business-as-usual transportation bill – The desire of Congress to fund pork-barrel transportation projects is at least somewhat constrained by the amount of revenue generated by the gas tax. There was an opportunity for reform in 2015 because proposed spending was much higher than the trajectory of gas tax revenue, but rather than even engage in a discussion of good policy options, politicians merely bickered over what combination of tax hikes and budget gimmicks they could put together to keep the pork projects flowing.

Creeping support on the right for the value-added tax – When I wrote early last year that the 2016 election might create an opportunity for tax reform, I was being hopeful that we might get something close to a simple and fair flat tax. Yet probably the biggest news so far in this election cycle is that a couple of candidates who presumably favor small government – Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – have proposed to impose a value-added tax without fully repealing the income tax.

There’s very little good news to celebrate. Here’s my tragically sparse list, and you’ll notice that my list of victories is heavy on style and light on substance. But let’s take what we can get.

Semi-decent Republican budgets – The budget resolution produced by Congress technically doesn’t embrace specific policies, but the it’s nonetheless noteworthy that the House and Senate approved numbers that – at least conceptually – are based on genuine Medicaid and Medicare reform.

Support for spending caps – Notwithstanding the fact that GOP politicians won’t even abide by the limited spending caps that already exist, I’m somewhat encouraged by the growing consensus for comprehensive spending caps akin to the ones in place in Switzerland and Hong Kong. Heck, even international bureaucracies now agree spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

Good election results from the Wolverine State – It was great to see Michigan voters reject a gas tax increase that was supported by the political elite.

More companies escaping the IRS – I heartily applaud when companies figure out how to re-domicile in jurisdictions with better tax law to escape America’s high corporate tax rate and self-destructive worldwide tax system. And I’m glad these “inversions” continue to take place even though the Obama Administration is trying to stop them.

A glimmer of reality at the New York Times – I realize I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel in my search for good news, but the fact that the New York Times published a column acknowledging that feminist economic policies backfire against women hopefully is a sign that sensible thinking is possible in the establishment media.

Gun control flopping – It’s great to see that the left has totally failed in its effort to undermine 2nd Amendment rights.

Limits on asset forfeiture – The final bit of good news from 2015 was the just-before-Christmas announcement by the Obama Administration that the odious practice of asset forfeiture would be modestly curtailed.

I would offer predictions for 2016, but since my big prediction from last year that we would have gridlock was sadly inaccurate, I think I’ll avoid making a fool of myself this year.

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In my speeches, I routinely argue that an aging population is one of the reasons why we need genuine entitlement reform.

A modest-sized welfare state may be feasible if a country has a “population pyramid,” I explain, Welfare State Wagon Cartoonsbut it’s a recipe for fiscal chaos when changing demographics result in fewer and fewer people pulling the wagon and more and more people riding in the wagon.

And if you somehow doubt that’s what is happening in America, check out this very sobering image showing that America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder.

The bottom line is that demographics and entitlements will mean a Greek fiscal future for America and other nations.

To bolster my case (particularly for folks who might be skeptical of a libertarian message), I frequently cite pessimistic long-run fiscal data from international bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’m not a big fan of these organizations because they routinely endorse statist policies, but I figure skeptics will be more likely to listen to me if I point out that even left-leaning international bureaucracies agree the public sector is getting too large.

And now I have more evidence to cite. A new report from the International Monetary Fund explores “The Fiscal Consequences of Shrinking Populations.” Here’s what you need to know.

Declining fertility and increasing longevity will lead to a slower-growing, older world population. …For the world, the share of the population older than age 65 could increase from 12 percent today to 38 percent by 2100. …These developments would place public finances of countries under pressure, through two channels. First, spending on age-related programs (pensions and health) would rise. Without further reforms, these outlays would increase by 9 percentage points of GDP and 11 percentage points of GDP in more and less developed countries, respectively, between now and 2100. The fiscal consequences are potentially dire…large tax increases that could stymie economic growth.

Let’s now look at a couple of charts from the study.

The one of the left shows that one-third of developed nations already have negative population growth, and that number will jump to about 60 percent by 2050. And because that means fewer workers to support more old people, the chart on the right shows how the dependency ratio will worsen over time.

So what do these demographic changes mean for fiscal policy?

Well, if you live in a sensible jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore, there’s not much impact, even though birthrates are very low, because government is small and people basically are responsible for setting aside income for their retirement years.

And if live in a semi-sensible jurisdiction such as Australia or Chile, the impact is modest because personal retirement accounts preclude Social Security-type fiscal challenges.

But if you live just about anywhere else, in places where government somehow is supposed to provide pensions and health care, the situation is very grim.

Here’s another chart from the new IMF report. If you look at developed nations, you can see a big increase in the projected burden of government spending, mostly because of rising expenditures for health care.

At this stage, I can’t resist pointing out that this is one reason why the enactment of Obamacare was a spectacularly irresponsible decision.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

Returning to the IMF report, the authors contemplate possible policy responses.

They look at increased migration, but at best that’s a beggar-thy-neighbor approach. They look at increased labor force participation, which would be a very good development, but it’s hard to see that happening when nations have redistribution policies that discourage people from being in the workforce.

And the report is very skeptical about the prospects of government-induced increases in birthrates.

Boosting birth rates could slow down population aging and gradually reduce fiscal pressures. …However, a “birth rate” solution to aging is unlikely to work for most countries. The pronatalist policies seem to have only modest effects on the number of births, although they might affect the timing of births.

So that means the problem will need to be addressed through fiscal policy.

The IMF’s proposed solutions include some misguided policies, but I was surprisingly pleased by the recognition that steps were needed to limit the growth of government.

Regarding pensions, the IMF suggested higher retirement ages, which is a second-best option, while also suggesting private retirement savings, which is the ideal solution.

Reforming public pension systems can help offset the effects of aging. Raising retirement ages is an especially attractive option… For example, raising retirement ages over 2015–2100 by an additional five years (about 7 months per decade) beyond what is already legislated would reduce pension spending by about 2 percentage points of GDP by 2100 (relative to the baseline) in both the more and less developed countries. …increasing the role of private retirement saving schemes could be helpful in offsetting the potential decline in lifetime retirement income.

But if you recall from above, the biggest problem is rising health care costs.

And kudos to the IMF for supporting market-driven competition. Even more important, though, the international bureaucracy recognizes that the key is to limit the government’s health care spending to the growth of the private economy (sort of a a healthcare version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule).

…health care reform can be effective in containing the growth of public health spending. …There is past success in improving health outcomes without raising costs through promoting some degree of competition among insurers and service providers. …Containing the growing costs of health care would help reduce long-term fiscal risks. On average, health care costs are projected to increase faster than economic growth. …Assuming policies are able to keep the growth of health care costs per capita in line with GDP per capita, health care spending will increase at a slower rate, reflecting only demographics. Under this scenario, public health care spending pressures would be greatly subdued: by 2100, health spending would be reduced by 4½ percentage points of GDP in the more developed countries.

Interestingly, of all the options examined by the IMF, capping the growth of health care spending had the biggest positive impact on long-run government spending.

So what lessons can we learn?

Most important, the IMF study underscores the importance of the Medicaid reform and Medicare reform proposals that have been included in recent budgets on Capitol Hill.

In addition to making necessary structural changes, both of these reforms cap the annual growth of health care spending, which is precisely what the IMF report says will generate the largest savings.

So we’re actually in a very unusual situation. Some lawmakers want to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time.

But not all of them. Some politicians, either because of malice or ignorance, think we should do nothing, even though that will mean a very unpleasant future.

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When I wrote the other day that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was the worst international bureaucracy, I must have caused some envy at the International Monetary Fund.

One can imagine the tax-free bureaucrats from the IMF, lounging at their lavish headquarters, muttering “Mitchell obviously hasn’t paid enough attention to our work.”

And they may be right. The IMF has published some new research on inequality and growth that merits our attention. I hoped it would be a good contribution to the discussion, but I was disappointed (albeit not overly surprised) to see that the authors put ideology over analysis.

Widening income inequality is the defining challenge of our time. …Equality, like fairness, is an important value.

Needless to say, they never explain why inequality is a more important challenge than anemic growth.

Moreover, they never differentiate between bad Greek-style inequality that is caused by cronyism and good Hong Kong-style inequality that is caused by some people getting richer faster than other people getting richer in a free market.

And they certainly don’t define “fairness” in an adequate fashion.

But let’s not get hung up on the rhetoric. The most newsworthy part of the study is that these IMF bureaucrats produced numbers ostensibly showing that growth improves if more income goes to those at the bottom 20 percent.

…we find an inverse relationship between the income share accruing to the rich (top 20 percent) and economic growth. If the income share of the top 20 percent increases by 1 percentage point, GDP growth is actually 0.08 percentage point lower in the following five years, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down. Instead, a similar increase in the income share of the bottom 20 percent (the poor) is associated with 0.38 percentage point higher growth.

And this correlation leads them to make a very bold assertion.

…there does not need to be a stark efficiency-equity tradeoff. Redistribution through the tax and transfer system is found to be positively related to growth for most countries.

Followed by some policy suggestions for more class-warfare tax policy to finance additional redistribution.

…the redistributive role of fiscal policy could be reinforced by greater reliance on wealth and property taxes, more progressive income taxation… In addition, reducing tax expenditures that benefit high-income groups most and removing tax relief—such as reduced taxation of capital gains, stock options, and carried interest—would increase equity.

Those are some bold leaps in logic that the authors make. And we’ll look at some new, high-quality research on the efficiency-equity tradeoff below, but first let’s consider the IMF’s supposed empirical findings on growth and income.

Several questions spring to mind:

  • Did they cherry pick the data? Why look at the relationship between growth and income gains in the previous five years rather than one year, three yeas, or ten years?
  • Why do they assume the correlation they found in the five-year data somehow implies causation for future growth? Roosters crow before the sun comes up, after all, but they don’t cause sunrises.
  • Was there any attempt to look at other hypotheses? One thing that instantly came to my mind was the possibility that recessions often are preceded by easy-money policies that create asset bubbles. And since those asset bubbles tend to artificially enrich savers and investors with higher incomes, perhaps that explains the correlation in the IMF’s data.
  • Perhaps most important, why assume that faster income growth for the bottom 20 percent automatically means there should be more redistribution through the tax and transfer system? Maybe that income growth is the natural – and desirable – outcome of good Hong Kong-type policies?

There are all sorts of other questions that could and should be asked, but let’s now shift to the IMF’s bold assertion that their ostensible correlation somehow proves that there’s no tradeoff between growth (efficiency) and redistribution (equity).

Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute investigated the degree to which Arthur Okun was right about a tradeoff between growth and redistribution.

Forty years ago, the economist Arthur Okun wrote a seminal book with a self-explanatory title: Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff.  …Okun’s tradeoff seems to be forgotten by many on the left, who advocate expanded government spending at every turn… What is needed is some kind of controlled experiment.. When the financial crisis began, countries varied tremendously in the extent to which they redistributed income. Some, such as Ireland and Sweden, redistributed a lot; others, such as the U.S. and Switzerland, not so much. Now, seven years later, some countries have recovered smartly. Others have not. If we go back and sort countries by how much they redistributed before the crisis, how does the growth experience compare? …The vertical axis plots how much redistribution there was in each country in 2008. The horizontal axis plots the rate of per capita national-income growth that each country averaged during the four years between 2008 and 2012. In some sense, then, the chart asks the question, “To what extent does variation in the size of the welfare state in 2008 explain variation in how economies recovered from the crisis between 2008 and 2012?” …As one can see in the chart, …the data show a clear pattern: the heavy redistributors have done much worse.

And here’s Kevin’s chart, and it clearly shows the redistribution-oriented nations had relatively slow growth (the top left of the chart).

The bottom line is that Kevin’s hypothesis and data are much more compelling that the junky analysis from the IMF.

But you don’t need to be an expert in economic jargon or statistical analysis to reach that conclusion.

Just look around the globe. The real-world evidence is so strong that only an international bureaucrat could miss it. The nations that follow the IMF’s advice, with lots of redistribution and class-warfare taxation, are the ones that languish.

After all, Greece, Italy, and France are not exactly role models.

While jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore routinely set the standard for growth.

And nations with medium-sized welfare states, such as Switzerland, Australia, and the United States, tend to fall in the middle. We out-perform Europe’s big-government economies, but we lag behind the small-government economies.

Let’s close by looking at some additional findings from the IMF study.

I was actually surprised to see that the bureaucrats admitted that inequality (more properly defined as some people getting richer faster than others get richer) was the natural result of positive economic developments.

We find that less-regulated labor markets, financial deepening, and technological progress largely explain the rise in market income inequality in our full sample over the last 30 years.

So why, then, is “inequality” a “defining challenge”?

Needless to say, the IMF never gives us a good answer.

I also was struck by this passage from the IMF study.

Figure 18 indicates that rising pre-tax income concentration at the top of the distribution in many advanced economies has also coincided with declining top marginal tax rates (from 59 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 2009).

And here is the chart, which the IMF would like you to believe is evidence that lower tax rates have contributed to inequality (even though the bureaucrats already admitted that natural forces have led some to get richer faster than others).

Yet this chart simply shows that supply-siders were right. Reagan, Kemp, and other tax cutters argued that lower tax rates would lead rich people to earn – and declare – more taxable income.

And that’s exactly what happened!

Heck, I’ve already shared incredibly powerful data from the IRS on this occurring during the 1980s in the United States, so it’s no surprise it happened in other nations as well.

But I don’t want to be reflexively critical of the IMF. The study did have some useful data.

And there was even one very good recommendation for helping the poor by cutting back on misguided anti-money laundering laws.

Country experiences also suggest that policies such as granting exemptions from onerous documentation requirements, requiring banks to offer basic accounts, and allowing correspondent banking are useful in fostering inclusion.

Since I’ve written that anti-money laundering laws are ineffective at fighting crime while putting costly burdens on those with low incomes, I’m glad to see the IMF has reached the same conclusion.

And here’s a chart from the IMF study showing how poor people are less likely to have accounts at financial institutions.

By the way, the World Bank has produced some very good research on how the poor are hurt by inane anti-money laundering rules.

So kudos to some international bureaucracies for at least being sensible on that issue.

But speaking of international bureaucracies, I started this column by joking about the contest to see which one produced the worst research with the worst recommendations.

And while the IMF’s new inequality study definitely deserves to be mocked, I must say that it’s not nearly as bad as the drivel that was published by the OECD.

So our friends in Paris can rest on their laurels, confident that they do the best job of squandering American tax dollars.

P.S. Since I pointed out that the IMF inadvertently ratified one of the key tenets of supply-side economics, let’s remember that the IMF also confirmed one of the key reasons to oppose a value-added tax.

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