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Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Back in 2012, I warned that the value-added tax (a hidden version of a national sales tax) was enabling bad fiscal policy in Japan, in large part because politicians wouldn’t make much-needed entitlement reforms if they had the option of raising the VAT.

Later that year, I repeated my warning, noting that politicians in Japan were becoming increasingly vocal about grabbing more money.

Unsurprisingly, these warnings had no effect. In 2013, Japan’s politicians announced the VAT would increase the following year.

Did the increase in the tax burden generate any subsequent good results?

Nope. The economy remained stagnant and debt continued to increase.

Needless to say, Japan’s politicians didn’t learn from this mistake. Notwithstanding my warnings in 2018 and 2019, they just increased the VAT yet again.

So how’s that working out for them?

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Mike Bird discusses the economic impact of the most-recent increase in the value-added tax.

Japan’s economy shrank sharply in the final three months of 2019, logging its second-worst quarter in the past decade. That would be easier to stomach if it weren’t because of a mistake policy makers have now made three times. In October, Japan raised its sales tax to 10% from 8%—and spending tanked. Household consumption fell 11.5% on an annualized basis in the October-December quarter, fueling a 6.3% fall in annualized gross domestic product. Sales-tax increases in 1997 and 2014 likewise knocked the economy off course. The three worst quarters for household consumption in the past quarter-century were those in which sales tax was raised. …the thinking that led to such destructive behavior is bizarrely resilient.

Here’s the accompanying chart, which shows how every increase in the VAT caused a drop in consumption.

For what it’s worth, I don’t find this chart very persuasive.

Yes, consumption drops in the short run when there’s an increase in the VAT, but there doesn’t seem to be any impact on the long-run trend.

Moreover, I don’t think consumer spending is an important variable, at least not in the sense of driving the economy.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to Japan’s VAT mistake.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue earlier this week.

The third time wasn’t the charm for Tokyo’s long-running attempt to increase its consumption tax. Data released Monday show Japan’s economy contracted in the last three months of 2019 as the tax hike hammered growth—as many warned and like the previous two times the tax has been raised since its 1989 introduction, in 1997 and 2014. …Wage growth is anemic despite a tight labor market, and the Labor Ministry calculates that inflation-adjusted pay fell 3.5% from 2012-2018. The tax rise creates a new and higher squeeze on household incomes. …The usual suspects are now calling for more Keynesian spending on public works and social spending. Three decades of similar blowouts have created the fiscal mess that always becomes justification for more consumption-tax hikes. …It’s too late for Japan to avoid the costs of Mr. Abe’s economic failures. But other governments can learn the lessons that Japan’s leaders refuse to heed.

Unfortunately, other leaders aren’t learning the right lessons.

Especially not in Europe, where politicians have been increasing the VAT with disturbing regularity.

Needless to say, those VAT increases are having the same impact in Europe as they are in Japan – bigger government, more debt, and anemic economic performance.

Let’s close by citing three additional sentences from the WSJ editorial.

The fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF want even further VAT increases in Japan.

The International Monetary Fund thinks the consumption-tax rate will have to rise to 15% over the next decade, and to 20% by 2050. But first the fund’s wizards say Tokyo must expand its Keynesian spending to make the economy “strong” enough to bear the tax hikes to pay for the spending. Got that?

I wrote last year about the IMF’s perverse fixation on ever-increasing VAT burdens in Japan, so I’m not surprised that the international bureaucracy is continuing its campaign.

Indeed, this chart shows why the pro-tax crowd at the IMF is in love with the VAT. Simply stated, it’s a very effective money machine for bigger government.

It enables politicians to siphon money from the productive sector of the economy, whether we’re looking at poor nations or rich nations.

By contrast, it’s difficult to generate more revenue from the personal income tax because of the Laffer Curve.

P.S. Some VAT advocates actually claim the levy is good for growth. That’s a nonsensical claim. VATs drive a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. What they really mean to say is that VATs don’t do as much damage, on a per-dollar-raised basis, as conventional income taxes (with punitive rates and double taxation).

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I wrote yesterday about Japan’s experience with the value-added tax, mostly to criticize the International Monetary Fund.

The statist bureaucrats at the IMF are urging a big increase in Japan’s VAT even though the last increase was only imposed two months ago (in a perverse way, I admire their ability to stay on message).

Today, I want to focus on a broader lesson regarding the political economy of the value-added tax. Because what’s happened in Japan is further confirmation that a VAT would be a terrible idea for the United States.

Simply stated, the levy would be a recipe for bigger government and more red ink.

Let’s look at three charts. First, here’s a look at how politicians in Japan have been pushing the VAT burden ever higher.

What’s been the result? Have politicians used the money to lower other taxes? Have they used the money to reduce government debt?

Hardly. As was the case in Europe, the value-added tax in Japan is associated with an increase in the burden of spending.

Here’s a chart (based on the IMF’s own data) showing that government is now consuming almost 35 percent of economic output, up from about 30 percent of GDP when the VAT was first imposed.

I’ve added a trend line (automatically generated by Excel) to illustrate what’s been happening. It’s not a big effect, but keep in mind the VAT never climbed above 5 percent until 2014.

Now let’s look at some numbers that are very unambiguous.

Japan’s politicians imposed the VAT in part because they claimed it was a way of averting more red ink.

Yet our final chart shows what’s happened to both gross debt and net debt since the VAT was imposed.

To be sure, the VAT was only one piece of a large economic puzzle. If you want to finger the main culprits for all this red ink, look first at Keynesian spending binges and economic stagnation.

But we also know the politicians were wrong when they said a VAT would keep debt under control

I’ll close with a political observation.

The left wants a value-added tax for the simple reason that it’s the only way to finance European-type levels of redistribution (yes, they also want class-warfare taxes on the rich, but that’s mostly for reasons of spite since even they recognize that such levies don’t actually generate much revenue).

But it’s very unlikely that a VAT will be imposed on the United States by the left. At least not acting alone.

The real danger is that we’ll wind up with a VAT because some folks on the right offer their support. These people don’t particularly want European-type levels of redistribution, but they think that’s going to happen. So one of their motives is to figure out ways to finance a large welfare state without completely tanking the economy.

They are right that a VAT doesn’t impose the same amount of damage, on a per-dollar-collected basis, as higher income tax rates. Or increases in double taxation (though it’s important to realize that it would still penalize productive behavior by increasing the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption).

But their willingness to surrender is nonetheless very distressing.

The bottom line is that the most important fiscal issue facing America is the need for genuine entitlement reform. Achieving that goal is an uphill battle. But if politicians get a big new source of revenue, that uphill battle becomes an impossible battle.

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It seems that the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have an ongoing contest to see which bureaucracy can be the biggest cheerleader for bad fiscal policy.

  • They compete (OECD vs IMF) to promote more spending.
  • They compete (OECD vs IMF) to push higher tax burdens.
  • They compete (OECD vs IMF) to advocate class warfare.

You can even see them competing to encourage bad policy in various nations.

In Japan, for instance, the OECD has been pushing for higher taxes while the IMF has been pushing for Keynesian spending.

But now the IMF is upping the ante by adding its bad advice on tax policy.

Japan’s politicians raised the value-added tax just two months ago.

But that’s not enough for the IMF. The bureaucrats already are urging a far bigger increase in the levy.

Japan needs to raise its consumption tax further to fund growing social security costs, the International Monetary Fund recommended… The tax “would need to increase gradually” to 15% by 2030 and 20% by 2050, the IMF said in a report. …IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva praised the smooth implementation of the Oct. 1 hike that took the consumption tax to 10% from 8%.

Needless to say, one of the main lessons from this sordid experience is that it’s never a good idea to give politicians a new source of revenue.

Look at what’s happened ever since the VAT was first imposed in 1989.

And now the IMF wants to push the rate up to 15 percent. And then 20 percent.

By the way, it’s worth noting that Japan’s politicians actually welcome this bad advice.

The nation faces a big demographic crunch (increasing life expectancy and low birth rates), and that means entitlement spending is on track to consume an ever-larger share of economic output.

To give you an idea of what’s happening, here’s a chart from the IMF’s report on Japan. It only looks at health-related spending, so keep in mind that the red line would be significantly hihger if Japan’s version of Social Security was included.

The bottom line is that Japan’s politicians want options to finance a growing burden of government spending.

And since decades of failed Keynesian policy have saddled the nation with record levels of debt, ever-larger sources of tax revenue are their preferred choice.

Sadly, the IMF is more than happy to rationalize that bad approach.

P.S. Japan’s politicians could reform entitlements, of course, but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Instead, expect this “depressing chart” to get even more depressing.

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It’s not easy picking the most pessimistic chart about Japan.

The country suffered several decades of economic stagnation following the collapse of a bubble about three decades ago.

That means it’s a bit of a challenge to identify the worst economic numbers.

  • Is it the data on ever-rising levels of government debt?
  • Is it the data on an ever-rising burden of taxation?
  • Or is it the data on an aging population and falling birthrate?

For what it’s worth, I thought the tax data was the most depressing.

But now there’s a new challenger for the grimmest chart.

I’m currently in Japan, where it’s almost bedtime. I just heard a speech from the governor of the Tokyo Prefecture.

As part of her remarks, she shared a slide showing how Japan has plummeted in the IMD competitiveness rankings.

I don’t have her chart, but I found another version with the same data.

And Japan has dropped to #30 in the recently released 2018 version.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that Economic Freedom of the World shows a similar decline.

Japan was ranked in the top-10 back in 1990, but now it’s dropped to #41.

This is not quite as pronounced as Argentina’s drop in the rankings for per-capita GDP, but it’s definitely a sign that something’s gone wrong in the Land of the Rising Sun.

P.S. Japan has a very strong entry in the contest for the world’s most inane regulation.

P.P.S. And if there was a contest for the most ineffective form of government waste, Japan would have a very strong entry for that prize as well.

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The value-added tax was first imposed in Europe starting about 50 years ago. Politicians in nations like France approve of this tax because it is generally hidden, so it is relatively easy to periodically raise the rate.

And that’s the reason I am vociferously opposed to the VAT. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the burden of government spending dramatically increased in Europe once politicians got their hands on a new source of revenue.

Simply stated, I don’t want that to happen in America.

Now I have new evidence to support that position.

We’ll start by crossing the Pacific to see what’s happening in Japan, as reported by Reuters.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to proceed with next year’s scheduled sales tax hike “by all means”… Abe said his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won last year’s lower house election with a pledge to use proceeds from the sales tax increase to make Japan’s social welfare system more sustainable. …his plan to raise the tax to 10 percent from 8 percent in October next year. Abe twice postponed the tax hike after an increase to 8 percent from 5 percent in 2014 tipped Japan into recession.

I give Prime Minister Abe credit for honesty. He openly admits that he wants more revenue to finance even bigger government.

But that doesn’t make it a good idea. Japan has been experimenting with bigger government for the past 25-plus years and it hasn’t led to good results. The VAT was just 3 percent in 1997 and the Prime Minster now wants it to be three times higher.

All of which is sad since Japan used to be one of the world’s most market-oriented nations.

You also won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD is being a cheerleader for a higher VAT in Japan.

Speaking of which, let’s look at what a new OECD report says about value-added taxes.

VAT revenues have reached historically high levels in most countries… Between 2008 and 2015, the OECD average standard VAT rate increased by 1.5 percentage points, from 17.6% to a record level of 19.2%, accelerating a longer term rise in standard VAT rates… VAT rates were raised at least once in 23 countries between 2008 and 2018, and 12 countries now have a standard rate of at least 22%, against only six in 2008… Raising standard VAT rates was a common strategy for countries…as increasing VAT rates provides immediate revenue.

And here’s a chart from the study that tells you everything you need to know about how politicians behave once they have a new source of tax revenue.

Incidentally, there’s another part of the report that should be highlighted.

For all intents and purposes, the OECD admits that higher taxes are bad for growth and that class-warfare taxes are the most damaging method of taxation.

…increasing VAT rates…has generally been found to be less detrimental to economic growth than raising direct taxes.

What makes this excerpt amusing (at least to me) is that the bureaucrats obviously want readers to conclude that higher VAT burdens are okay. But by writing “less detrimental to growth,” they are admitting that all tax increases undermine prosperity and that “raising direct taxes” (i.e., levies that target the rich such as personal income tax) is the worst way to generate revenue.

Which is what I’ve been pointing out!

Last but not least, I’ll recycle my video explaining why a VAT would be very bad news for the United States.

Everything that has happened since that video was released in 2009 underscores why it would be incredibly misguided to give Washington a big new source of tax revenue. And that’s true even if the people pushing a VAT have their hearts in the right place.

The only exception to my anti-VAT rigidity is if the 16th Amendment is repealed, and then replaced by something that unambiguously ensures that the income tax is permanently abolished. A nice goal, but I’m not holding my breath.

P.S. One of America’s most statist presidents, Richard Nixon, wanted a VAT. That’s a good reason for the rest of us to be opposed.

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I’m currently in Tokyo for an Innovation Summit. Perhaps because I once referred to Japan as a basket case, I’ve been asked to speak about policies that are needed to boost the nation’s competitiveness.

That sounds like an easy topic since I can simply explain that free markets and small government are the universal recipe for growth and prosperity.

But then I figured I should be more focused and look at some of Japan’s specific challenges. So I began to ponder whether I should talk about Japan’s high debt levels. Or perhaps the country’s repeated (and failed) attempts to stimulate the economy with Keynesianism. And Japan’s demographic crisis is also a very important issue.

But since I only have 20 minutes (not even counting Q&A), I don’t really have time for a detailed examination on any of those topics. So I was still uncertain of how best to illustrate the need for pro-market reforms.

My job suddenly got a lot easier, though, because Eduardo Porter of the New York Times wrote a column today that includes a graph very effectively illustrating why Japan is in trouble. Simply stated, the country is on a very bad trajectory of ever-higher taxes.

To elaborate, Japan used to have a relatively modest tax burden, as least compared to other industrialized nations. But then, thanks in part to the enactment of a value-added tax, the aggregate tax burden began to climb. It has jumped from about 18 percent of economic output in 1965 to about 32 percent of gross domestic product in 2015.

Even the French didn’t raise taxes that dramatically!

By the way, I feel compelled to digress and point out that Mr. Porter’s column was not designed to warn about rising taxes in Japan. Instead, he was whining about non-rising taxes in the United States. I’m not joking.

American tax policy must stand as one of the great mysteries of the global political economy. In 1969…federal, state and local governments in the United States raised about the same in taxes, as a share of the economy, as the government of the average industrialized country: 26.6 percent of gross domestic product, against 27 percent among the nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Nearly 50 years later, the tax picture has changed little in the United States. By 2015, …the figure was 26.4 percent of G.D.P. But across the market democracies of the O.E.C.D., the share had climbed by an average of more than seven percentage points. …Americans are paying dearly as a result, as their comparatively small government has proved incapable of providing an adequate safety net…there is no credible evidence that countries with higher tax rates necessarily grow less.

Americans are “paying dearly”? Are we “paying dearly” because our living standards are so much higher? Are we “paying dearly” because our growth rates are higher and Europe is failing to converge? Are we “paying dearly” because America’s poorest states are rich compared to European countries.

Now that I got that off my chest, let’s get back to our discussion about Japan.

Looking at the data from Economic Freedom of the World, Japan ranked among the world’s 10-freest economies as recently as 1990. Today, it ranks #39. That is a very unfortunate development, though I should point out that the nation’s relative decline isn’t solely because of misguided fiscal policy.

I’ll close by noting that even the good news from Japan isn’t that good. Yes, the government did slight lower its corporate tax rate so it no longer has the highest burden among developed nations. But having the second-highest corporate tax rate is hardly something to cheer about.

P.S. Since today’s column looks at the most depressing Japanese chart, I should remind people that I shared the most depressing Danish PowerPoint slide back in 2015. I may need to create a collection.

P.P.S. I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that the OECD and IMF have been encouraging bad policy for Japan.

P.P.P.S. If I had to guess, I would say that Japan’s government is probably more competent than average. But that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of some bone-headed policies, such as a regulatory regime for coffee enemas and a giveaway program that was so convoluted that no companies asked for the free money.

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I’ve looked at some of the grim fiscal implications of demographic changes the United States and Europe.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in Asia.

The International Monetary Fund has a recent study that looks at shortfalls in government-run pension schemes and various policies that could address the long-run imbalances in the region. Here are the main points from the abstract.

Asian economies are aging fast, with significant implications for their pension system finances. While some countries already have high dependency ratios (Japan), others are expected to experience a sharp increase in the next couple of decades (China, Korea, Singapore). …This has…implications. …pension system deficits can increase very quickly, limiting room for policy action and hampering fiscal sustainability. …This paper explores how incorporating Automatic Adjustment Mechanisms (AAMs)—rules ensuring that certain characteristics of a pension system respond to demographic, macroeconomic and financial developments, in a predetermined fashion and without the need for additional intervention— can be part of pension reforms in Asia.

More succinctly, AAMs are built-in rules that automatically make changes to government pension systems based on various criteria.

Incidentally, we already have AAMs in the United States. Annual Social Security cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and increases in the wage base cap are examples of automatic changes that occur on a regular basis. And such policies exist in many other nations.

But those are AAMs that generally are designed to give more money to beneficiaries. The IMF study is talking about AAMs that are designed to deal with looming shortfalls caused by demographic changes. In other words, AAMs that result in seniors getting lower-than-promised benefits in the future. Here’s how the IMF study describes this development.

More recently, AAMs have come to the forefront to help address financial sustainability concerns of public pension systems. Social insurance pension systems are dominated by defined benefit schemes, pay-as-you-go financed, with liabilities explicitly underwritten by the government. …these systems, under their previous contribution and benefit rules, are unprepared for population aging and need to implement parametric reform or structural reforms in order to reduce the level or growth rate of their unfunded pension liabilities. …Automatic adjustments can theoretically make the reform process politically less painful and more likely to succeed.

Here’s a chart from the study that underscores the need for some sort of reform. It shows the age-dependency ratio on the left and the projected increase in the burden of pension spending on the right.

I’m surprised that the future burden of pension spending in Japan will only be slightly higher than it is today.

And I’m shocked by the awful long-run outlook in Mongolia (the bad numbers for China are New Zealand are also noteworthy, though not as surprising).

To address these grim numbers, the study considers various AAMs that might make government systems fiscally sustainable.

Especially automatic increases in the retirement age based on life expectancy.

One attractive option is to link statutory retirement ages—which seem relatively low in the region—to longevity or other sustainability indicators. This would at the very least help ameliorate the impact of life expectancy improvements in the finances of public pension systems. … While some countries have already raised the retirement age over time (Japan, Korea), pension systems in Asia do not yet feature automatic links between retirement age and life expectancy. …The case studies for Korea and China (section IV) suggest that automatic indexation of retirement age to life expectancy can indeed help reduce the pension system’s financial imbalances.

Here’s a table showing the AAMs that already exist.

Notice that the United States is on this list with an “ex-post trigger” based on “current deficits.”

This is because when the make-believe Trust Fund runs out of IOUs in the 2030s, there’s an automatic reduction in benefits. For what it’s worth, I fully expect future politicians to simply pass a law stating that promised benefits get paid regardless.

It’s also worth noting that Germany and Canada have “ex-ante triggers” for “contribution rates.” I’m assuming that means automatic tax hikes, which is a horrid idea. Heck, even the study acknowledges a problem with that approach.

…raising contribution rates can have important effects on the labor market and growth, it would be important to prioritize other adjustments.

From my perspective, the main – albeit unintended – lesson from the IMF study is that private retirement accounts are the best approach. These defined contribution (DC) systems avoid all the problems associated with pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer regimes, generally known as defined benefit (DB) systems.

The larger role played by defined contribution schemes in Asia reduce the scope for using AAMs for financial sustainability purposes. Many Asian economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia) have defined contribution systems, …under which system sustainability is typically inherent.

Here are the types of pension systems in Asia, with Australia and New Zealand added to the mix..

For what it’s worth, I would put Australia in the “defined contribution” grouping. Yes, there is still a government age pension that serves as a safety net, but there also are safety nets in Singapore and Hong Kong as well.

But I’m nitpicking.

Here’s another table from the study showing that it’s much simpler to deal with “DC” systems compared with “DB” systems. About the only reforms that are ever needed revolve around the question of how much private savings should be required.

By the way, even though the information in the IMF study shows the superiority of DC plans, that’s only an implicit message.

To the extent the bureaucracy has an explicit message, it’s mostly about indexing the retirement age to changes in life expectancy.

That’s probably better than doing nothing, but there’s an unaddressed problem with that approach. It forces people to spend more years working and paying into systems, and then leaves them fewer years to collect benefits in retirement.

That idea periodically gets floated in the United States. Here’s some of what I wrote in 2011.

Think of this as the pay-for-a-steak-and-get-a-hamburger plan. Social Security already is a bad deal for workers, forcing them to pay a lot of money in exchange for relatively meager retirement benefits.

I made a related observation about this approach back in 2012.

…it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

The bottom line is that the implicit message should be explicit. Other nations should copy jurisdictions such as Chile, Australia, and Hong Kong by shifting to personal retirement accounts

P.S. Speaking of which, here’s the case for U.S. reform, as captured by cartoons. And you can enjoy other Social Security cartoons here, here, and here, along with a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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When I warn about the fiscal and economic consequences of America’s poorly designed entitlement programs (as well as the impact of demographic changes), I regularly suggest that the United States is on a path to become Greece.

Because of Greece’s horrible economy, this link has obvious rhetorical appeal.

But there’s another nation that may be a more accurate “role model” of America’s future. This other country, like the United States, is big, relatively rich, and has its own currency.

For these and other reasons, in an article for The Hill, I suggest that Japan is the nation that may offer the most relevant warning signs. I explain first that Japan shows the failure of Keynesian economics.

…ever since a property bubble burst in the late 1980s, Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums, and its politicians deserve much of the blame. They’ve engaged in repeated binges of so-called Keynesian stimulus. But running up the national credit card hasn’t worked any better in Japan than it did for President Barack Obama. Instead of economic rejuvenation, Japan is now saddled with record levels of debt.

In other words, Japan already is a basket case and may be the next Greece. And all this foolish policy has been cheered on by the IMF.

I then highlight how Japan shows why a value-added tax is a huge mistake.

Japan’s politicians also decided to impose a value-added tax (VAT) on the nation. As so often happens when a VAT gets adopted, it turns into a money machine, as legislators start ratcheting the rate higher and higher. That happened in Europe back in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s happening in Japan today.

And regular readers know my paranoid fear of the VAT taking hold in the United States.

But here’s the main lesson in the column.

The combination of demographic changes and redistribution programs is a recipe for fiscal crisis.

…the biggest economic threat to the country is the way Japan’s welfare state interacts with demographic changes. It’s not that the welfare state is enormous, particularly compared with European nations, but the system is becoming an ever-increasing burden because the Japanese people are living longer and having fewer children. …America faces some of the same problems. …if we don’t reform our entitlement programs, it’s just a matter of time before we also have a fiscal crisis.

To be sure, as I note in the article, Japan’s demographic outlook is worse. And that nation’s hostility to any immigration (even from high-skilled people) means that Japan can’t compensate (as America has to some degree) for low birth rates by expanding its population.

Indeed, the demographic situation in Japan is so grim that social scientists have actually estimated the date on which the Japanese people become extinct.

Mark August 16, 3766 on your calendar. According to…researchers at Tohoku University, that’s the date Japan’s population will dwindle to one. For 25 years, the country has had falling fertility rates, coinciding with widespread aging. The worrisome trend has now reached a critical mass known as a “demographic time bomb.” When that happens, a vicious cycle of low spending and low fertility can cause entire generations to shrink — or disappear completely.

Though I guess none of us will know whether this prediction is true unless we live another 1750 years. But it doesn’t matter if the estimate is perfect. Japan’s demographic outlook is very grim.

By the way, the problem of aging populations and misguided entitlements exists in almost every developed nation.

But I mentioned in the article for The Hill that there are two exceptions. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low birthrates and aging populations. But neither jurisdiction faces a fiscal crisis for the simple reason that people largely are responsible for saving for their own retirement.

And that, of course, is the main lesson. The United States desperately needs genuine entitlement reform. While I’m not overflowing with optimism about Trump’s view on these issues, hope springs eternal.

P.S. In yesterday’s column about Germany, I listed bizarre policies in Germany in the postscripts. My favorite example from Japan is the regulation of coffee enemas. And the Japanese government has even proven incompetent at giving away money.

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Remember Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, the 1993 comedy classic about a weatherman who experiences the same day over and over again?

Well, the same thing is happening in Japan. But instead of a person waking up and reliving the same day, we get politicians pursuing the same failed Keynesian stimulus policies over and over again.

The entire country has become a parody of Keynesian economics. Yet the politicians make Obama seem like a fiscal conservative by comparison. They keep doubling down on the same approach, regardless of all previous failures.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the details of the latest Keynesian binge.

Japan’s cabinet approved a government stimulus package that includes ¥7.5 trillion ($73 billion) in new spending, in the latest effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to jump-start the nation’s sluggish economy. The spending program, which has a total value of ¥28 trillion over several years, represents…an attempt to breathe new life into the Japanese economy… The government will pump money into infrastructure projects… The government will provide cash handouts of ¥15,000, or about $147, each to 22 million low-income people… Other items in the package included interest-free loans for infrastructure projects…and new hotels for foreign tourists.

As already noted, this is just the latest in a long line of failed stimulus schemes.

The WSJ story includes this chart showing what’s happened just since 2008.

And if you go back farther in time, you’ll see that the Japanese version of Groundhog Day has been playing since the early 1990s.

Here’s a list, taken from a presentation at the IMF, of so-called stimulus plans adopted by various Japanese governments between 1992-2008.

And here’s my contribution to the discussion. I went to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and downloaded the numbers on government borrowing, government debt, and per-capita GDP growth.

I wanted to see how much deficit spending there was and what the impact was on debt and the economy. As you can see, red ink skyrocketed while the private economy stagnated.

Though we shouldn’t be surprised. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt, or Bush and Obama, so why expect it to work in another country.

By the way, I can’t resist making a comment on this excerpt from a CNBC report on Japan’s new stimulus scheme.

Abe ordered his government last month to craft a stimulus plan to revive an economy dogged by weak consumption, despite three years of his “Abenomics” mix of extremely accommodative monetary policy, flexible spending and structural reform promises.

In the interest of accuracy, the reporter should have replaced “despite” with “because of.”

In addition to lots of misguided Keynesian fiscal policy, there’s been a radical form of Keynesian monetary policy from the Bank of Japan.

Here are some passages from a very sobering Bloomberg report about the central bank’s burgeoning ownership of private companies.

Already a top-five owner of 81 companies in Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average, the BOJ is on course to become the No. 1 shareholder in 55 of those firms by the end of next year…. BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda almost doubled his annual ETF buying target last month, adding to an unprecedented campaign to revitalize Japan’s stagnant economy. …opponents say the central bank is artificially inflating equity valuations and undercutting efforts to make public companies more efficient. …the monetary authority’s outsized presence will make some shares harder to buy and sell, a phenomenon that led to convulsions in Japan’s government bond market this year. …the BOJ doesn’t acquire individual shares directly, it’s the ultimate buyer of stakes purchased through ETFs. …investors worry that BOJ purchases could give a free ride to poorly-run firms and crowd out shareholders who would otherwise push for better corporate governance.

Wow. I don’t pretend to be an expert on monetary economics, but I can’t image that there will be a happy ending to this story.

Just in case you’re not sufficiently depressed about Japan’s economic outlook, keep in mind that the nation also is entering a demographic crisis, as reported by the L.A. Times.

All across Japan, aging villages such as Hara-izumi have been quietly hollowing out for years… Japan’s population crested around 2010 with 128 million people and has since lost about 900,000 residents, last year’s census confirmed. Now, the country has begun a white-knuckle ride in which it will shed about one-third of its population — 40 million people — by 2060, experts predict. In 30 years, 39% of Japan’s population will be 65 or older.

The effects already are being felt, and this is merely the beginning of the demographic wave.

Police and firefighters are grappling with the safety hazards of a growing number of vacant buildings. Transportation authorities are discussing which roads and bus lines are worth maintaining and cutting those they can no longer justify. …Each year, the nation is shuttering 500 schools. …In Hara-izumi, …The village’s population has become so sparse that wild bears, boars and deer are roaming the streets with increasing frequency.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), even modest-sized welfare states eventually collapse when you wind up with too few workers trying to support an ever-growing number of recipients.

Now maybe you can understand why I’ve referred to Japan as a basket case.

P.S. You hopefully won’t be surprised to learn that Japanese politicians are getting plenty of bad advice from the fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. Maybe I’m just stereotyping, but I’ve always assumed the Japanese were sensible people, even if they have a bloated and wasteful government. But when you look at that nation’s contribution to the stupidest-regulation contest and the country’s entry in the government-incompetence contest, I wonder whether the Japanese have some as-yet-undiscovered genetic link to Greece?

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Japan is the poster child for Keynesian economics.

Ever since a bubble popped about 25 years ago, Japanese politician have adopted one so-called stimulus scheme after another.

Lots of additional government spending. Plenty of gimmicky tax cuts. All of which were designed according to the Keynesian theory that presumes that governments should borrow money and somehow get those funds into people’s pockets so they can buy things and supposedly jump-start the economy.

Japanese politicians were extraordinarily successful, at least at borrowing money. Government debt has quadrupled, jumping to way-beyond-Greece levels of about 250 percent of economic output.

But all this Keynesian stimulus hasn’t helped growth.

The lost decade of the 1990s turned into another lost decade and now the nation is mired in another lost decade. This chart from the Heritage Foundation tells you everything you need to know about what happens when a country listens to people like Paul Krugman.

But it’s not just Paul Krugman cheering Japan’s Keynesian splurge.

The dumpster fire otherwise known as the International Monetary Fund has looked at the disaster of the past twenty-five years and decided that Japan needs more of the same.

I’m not joking.

The Financial Times reports on the latest episode of this Keynesian farce, aided and abetted by the hacks at the IMF.

Japan must redouble economic stimulus…the International Monetary Fund has warned in a tough verdict on the world’s third-largest economy. Prime minister Shinzo Abe needs to “reload” his Abenomics programme with an incomes policy to drive up wages, on top of monetary and fiscal stimulus, the IMF said after its annual mission to Tokyo. …David Lipton, the IMF’s number two official, in an interview with the Financial Times…argued that Japan should adopt an incomes policy, where employers — including the government — would raise wages by 3 per cent a year, with tax incentives and a “comply or explain” mechanism to back it up. …Mr Lipton and the IMF gave a broad endorsement to negative interest rates. The BoJ sparked a political backlash when it cut rates to minus 0.1 per cent in January.

Wow.

Some people thought I was being harsh when I referred to the IMF as the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy.

I now feel that I should apologize to the now-departed suicide doctor.

After all, Dr. Kevorkian probably never did something as duplicitous as advising governments to boost tax burdens and then publishing a report to say that the subsequent economic damage was evidence against the free-market agenda.

P.S. The IMF is not the only international bureaucracy that is giving Japan bad advice. The OECD keeps advising the government to boost the value-added tax.

P.P.S. Japan’s government is sometimes so incompetent that it can’t even waste money successfully.

P.P.P.S. Though Japan does win the prize for the strangest government regulation.

P.P.P.P.S. By the way, here’s another example of the IMF in action. Sri Lanka’s economy is in trouble in part because of excessive government spending.

So the IMF naturally wants to do a bailout. But, as Reuters reports, the bureaucrats at the IMF want Sri Lanka to impose higher taxes.

Sri Lanka will raise its value added tax and reintroduce capital gains tax…ahead of talks on a $1.5-billion loan it is seeking from the International Monetary Fund. …The IMF has long called on Sri Lanka to…raise revenues… These are likely to be the main conditions for the grant of a loan, economists say.

P.P.P.P.P.S. On a separate topic, the British will have a chance to escape the European Union this Thursday.

I explained last week that Brexit would be economically beneficial to the United Kingdom, but independence also is a good idea simply because the European Commission and European Parliament (and other associated bureaucracies) are reprehensible rackets for the benefit of insiders.

In other words, Brussels is like Washington. Sort of a scam to transfer money from taxpayers to the elite.

Though I wonder whether the goodies for EU bureaucrats can possibly be as lavish as those provided to OECD employees. I don’t know if the bureaucrats at the OECD get free Viagra, but they pay zero income tax, which surely must be better than the special low tax rate that EU bureaucrats have arranged for themselves.

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Maybe future events will require a reassessment, but right now the biggest danger to the western world isn’t terrorism. Nor is it climate change. Or Zika. Or even Donald Trump.

The real threat is demographic change.

America’s population profile already has changed, but the future shift will be even more dramatic.

But demographics changes are neither good nor bad. The real problem, as I pointed out last month, is when you combine an aging population with poorly designed entitlement programs.

…even a small welfare state becomes a problem when a nation has a population cylinder. Simply stated, there aren’t enough people to pull the wagon and there are too many people riding in the wagon.

That’s a recipe for a crisis.

Here are some sobering details from a story in Business Insider.

The world is about to see a mind-blowing demographic situation that will be a first in human history: There are about to be more elderly people than young children. …And these two age groups will continue to grow in opposite directions: The proportion of the population ages 65 and up will continue to increase, while the proportion of the population ages 5 and under will continue decreasing. In fact, according to the Census Bureau, by 2050 those ages 65 and up will make up an estimated 15.6% of the global population — more than double that of children ages 5 and under, who will make up an estimated 7.2%. “This unique demographic phenomenon of the ‘crossing’ is unprecedented,” the report’s authors said.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the story.

And as you look at the numbers, keep in mind that entitlement programs mean that a growing population of old people means more spending, while a shrinking number of children means fewer future taxpayers to finance that spending.

Let’s now look at a nation that is the “canary in the coal mine” for why changing demographics is a recipe for fiscal crisis.

A story from The Week highlights the grim demographic outlook for Japan.

Japan is us, and we’re Japan. …Japan has a…serious problem on its hands: The country is literally dying. According to current projections, by 2060 the country will have shrunk by a third, and people over 65 years old will account for 40 percent of the population. Already, the country is selling more adult diapers than infant diapers. To say this is unsustainable is a euphemism. The country is quite simply dying. …Demography is not destiny, exactly, but it is close to it. …the impending collapse can no longer be denied, as is the case in Japan and Germany. …The extinction of a people and culture is always a global tragedy. It’s time for Japan — and the West — to wake up.

A wake-up call is needed. It’s not just Japan. The entire developed world faces a demographic problem.

The good news is that there is an understanding that something needs to change.

The not-so-good news is that many of the responses are misguided. Cheered on by the OECD, Japan has been boosting the value-added tax in hopes of financing an ever-expanding burden of government spending.

That won’t end well.

And I’m not overly enthralled by some of the other proposals.

Why not just pay people to have children? …If you lower the price of something, you will get more of it. Over the past two decades, Japan has spent trillions of dollars on mostly wasteful pork-barrel spending projects. It seems to me that the country would be better off today if that money had been spent on bonuses for second and third children instead.

For what it’s worth, I agree that giving money to parents would have been better than the various Keynesian spending binges (some of which are downright nuts) that have taken place in Japan.

But I’m not confident that child subsidies are an effective or desirable long-run solution to the nation’s demographic situation.

The one option that would work is to reform entitlement programs. Hong Kong’s demographic outlook is even more challenging than Japan’s, yet it is in much better long-run shape because it has a more sensible approach to entitlements, including a private Social Security system.

P.S. Every so often, a celebrity from the entertainment world has an epiphany about greedy and corrupt government. It definitely happened for Jon Lovitz, Will Smith, and Rob Schneider. And it might be happening for George Lopez.

Newsbusters has the details.

In a recent radio interview for BigBoyTV, comedian George Lopez let us all know that he’s endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders, while paradoxically, making it known he doesn’t want to pay any more taxes.

Here’s what he specifically said.

I endorsed Bernie Sanders. But really just to… I mean it’s cool. I can’t pay any more taxes, it’s ridiculous. But, so, we’ll figure it out.

Huh?!? He’s getting pillaged by the tax code yet he’s supporting a candidate who wants giant tax hikes. I guess his epiphany needs more clarity.

P.P.S. I admit these examples are all sarcastic, but Obama could have a Hollywood career after leaving office.

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It’s very hard to be optimistic about Japan. I’ve even referred to the country as a basket case.

But my concern is not that the country has been mired in stagnation for the past 25 years. Instead, I’m much more worried about the future. The main problem is that Japan has the usual misguided entitlement programs that are found in most developed nations, but has far-worse-than-usual demographics. That’s not a good long-term combination.

As I repeatedly point out in my speeches and elsewhere, a modest-sized welfare state can be sustained in a nation with a population pyramid. But even a small welfare state is a challenge for a country with a population cylinder. And it’s a crisis for a jurisdiction such as Japan that will soon have an upside-down pyramid.

To make matters worse, Japanese politicians don’t seem overly interested in genuine entitlement reform. Instead, most of the discussion (egged on by the tax-free bureaucrats at the OECD) seems focused on how to extract more money from the private sector to finance an ever-growing public sector.

But the icing on the cake of bad policy is that Japanese politicians are addicted to Keynesian economics. For two-plus decades, they’ve enacted one “stimulus package” after another. None of these schemes have succeeded. Indeed, the only real effect has been a quadrupling of the debt burden.

The Wall Street Journal shares my pessimism. Here’s some of what was stated in an editorial late last year.

Japan is in recession for the fifth time in seven years, and the…Prime Minister who promised to end his country’s stagnation is failing at the task. …Mr. Abe’s economic plan consisted of three “arrows,” starting with fiscal spending and monetary easing. The result is a national debt set to hit 250% of GDP by the end of the year. The Bank of Japan is buying bonds at a $652 billion annual rate, a more radical quantitative easing than the Federal Reserve’s. …The third arrow, structural economic reform, offered Japan the only hope of sustained economic growth. …But for every step Mr. Abe takes toward reform, one foot remains planted in the political economy of Japan Inc. In April 2014, Mr. Abe acquiesced to a disastrous three percentage-point increase in the value-added tax, to 8%, pushing Japan into its first recession on his watch. More recently, he has pushed politically popular but economically ineffectual spending measures on child care and help for the elderly. …only 25% of the population now believes Abenomics will improve the economy. Reality has a way of catching up with political promises.

You might think that even politicians might learn after repeated failure that big government is not a recipe for prosperity.

But you would be wrong.

Notwithstanding the fact that Keynesian economics hasn’t worked, Japanese politicians are doubling down on the wrong approach.

According to a report from Bloomberg, American Keynesians (when they’re not busing giving bad advice to Greece) are telling Japan to dig a deeper hole.

Paul Krugman urged Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to…expand fiscal stimulus to revive the economy.

Reuters filed a similar report.

U.S. economist Paul Krugman said on Tuesday he advised Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to…boost fiscal spending… Krugman’s advice was the same as that which fellow U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz gave Abe last week.

Indeed, there apparently was a consensus for bigger government.

Every one of the economists that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has invited here for a series of meetings with policymakers has recommended that Japan let loose government spending… When Abe asked why consumer spending has remained feeble since the 2014 consumption tax increase, the U.S. academic suggested the answer lies in expectations that fiscal stimulus will end. …Abe’s government…appears to be seeking to rally the G-7 for aggressive fiscal policy.

So why did the Japanese government create an echo chamber of Keynesianism?

Perhaps because politicians want an excuse to buy votes with other people’s money.

With an upper house election looming in July, ruling coalition lawmakers also are eager to dole out massive public spending.

And it appears that Japanese politicians are happy to take advice when it’s based on their spending vice ostensibly being a fiscal virtue.

That’s not too shocking, but the Keynesian scheme that’s being prepared is a parody even by Krugmanesque standards.

Japan’s government is considering handing out gift certificates to low-income young people in a supplementary budget for fiscal 2016 as consumer spending remains sluggish on a slow wage recovery, the Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported Thursday. Government officials believe certificates for purchasing daily necessities would lead to spending, unlike cash handouts which could be saved… The additional fiscal program would follow a similar measure for seniors and the ruling coalition would use it to gain voter support before the Upper House election expected in July, the daily said.

Maybe the politicians will succeed in buying votes, but they shouldn’t expect better economic performance. Giving people gift certificates won’t alter incentives to work, save, and invest (the behaviors that actually result in more economic output).

Indeed, on the margin these handouts may lure a few additional people out of the labor force.

The plan is foolish even from a Keynesian perspective. Since money is fungible, do these people really think gift certificates will encourage more spending that cash handouts?

By the way, another reason to be pessimistic about Japan is that there apparently aren’t any politicians who understand economics. Or at least there aren’t any that want good policy. The opposition party isn’t opposed to Keynesian foolishness. Instead, it’s leader is only concerned about who gets the goodies.

Katsuya Okada, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, said in parliamentary debate in January. “Elderly people are not the only ones who are suffering. Among the working generation, only a limited number of people are feeling the fruit of Abenomics.”

The bottom line is that Japan will become another Greece at some point. I’m not smart enough to know whether that will happen in five years or twenty-five years, but barring a radical reversal in government policy, the nation is in deep long-run trouble.

P.S. Though I have to give the Japanese government credit for being so incompetent that it introduced a giveaway program that was so poorly designed that nobody signed up for the handout.

P.P.S. And Japan also wins the prize for what must be the world’s oddest regulation.

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Remember the scene in Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, when the Knights of the Round Table have to answer three questions before they can cross the Bridge of Death?

Sir Galahad is cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril because he changes his mind when asked his favorite color.

I can sympathize because I would hate to be asked for a one-word description of government.

My first instinct would be say “stupid,” but that might not be the most mature response. So I’d probably say “wasteful.” But then I’d change my mind and say “corrupt.” As the bridge keeper was about to cast me to my death, I’d say “thuggish.” And my final choice as I fell into the gorge might be “incompetent.”

And I’d have lots of examples in mind for that final version, such as the time the Italian government appointed the wrong person to a job that shouldn’t even exist.

Or how about the British government being so incompetent that it created a new handout that was so poorly designed that nobody signed up.

I guess Japan’s government was inspired by the British counterparts, because Bloomberg reports that the Japanese government also is too incompetent to give away money.

Not a single Japanese company has applied for a government subsidy to encourage firms to promote women in the 17 months since the plan started. Under a labor ministry plan unveiled in April 2014, small and medium-sized companies that promote women are eligible to apply for a 300,000 yen ($2,500) payment per company, while larger firms can get 150,000 yen each. The ministry had budgeted 120 million yen to be distributed to about 400 companies.

So why didn’t companies want these handouts?

Probably because the government wanted them to waste a lot of time and energy and it simply wasn’t worthwhile.

The program requires companies to set their own numerical targets and achieve the goals within six months. Firms also need to offer at least 30 hours of training to educate their workforce about equal opportunity rights, according to the health ministry’s Megumi Kondo.

Needless to say, the right lesson to learn is that the government shouldn’t be trying to steer the market.

The profit motive and human preferences should determine how many women fill various positions in companies, not the arbitrary diktats of the political class.

Moreover, you would think Japan’s policy community would have more important things to worry about, such as the fact that  the IMF, BIS, and OECD all show the country on track for Greek-style fiscal chaos.

Or the fact that higher taxes are keeping Japan’s economy stagnant.

But I guess it doesn’t make sense to assume smart decisions by Japanese politicians. After all, they’re probably just as venal and short sighted as their American counterparts.

P.S. If I had to pick the most inane regulation on the planet, I’d probably select the Greek rule on stool samples. But, depending on my mood, the Japanese reg on coffee enemas might win the prize.

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The title of this post sounds like the beginning of a strange joke, but it’s actually because we’re covering three issues today.

Our first topic is corporate taxation. More specifically, we’re looking at a nation that seems to be learning that it’s foolish the have a punitive corporate tax system.

By way of background, the United States used to have the second-highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

But then the Japanese came to their senses and reduced their tax rate on companies, leaving America with the dubious honor of having the world’s highest rate.

So did the United States respond with a tax cut in order to improve competitiveness? Nope, our rate is still high and the United States arguably now has the world’s worst tax system for businesses.

But the Japanese learned if a step in the right direction is good, then another step in the right direction must be even better.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Japan will be lowering its corporate tax rate again.

Japan’s ruling party on Tuesday cleared the way for a corporate tax cut to take effect next year… Reducing the corporate tax rate, currently about 35%, is a long-standing demand of large corporations. They say they bear an unfair share of the burden and have an incentive to move plants overseas to where taxes are lower. …Business leaders want the rate to fall below 30% within the next few years and eventually to 25%… The Japan Business Federation, known as Keidanren, says tax cuts could partly pay for themselves by spurring investment. Japan’s current corporate tax rate is higher than most European and Asian countries, although it is lower than the U.S. level of roughly 40%.

If only American politicians could be equally sensible.

The Japanese (at least some of them) even understand that a lower corporate rate will generate revenue feedback because of the Laffer Curve.

I’ve tried to make the same point to American policymakers, but that’s like teaching budget calculus to kids from the fiscal policy short bus.

Let’s switch gears to our second topic and look at what one veteran wrote about handouts from Uncle Sam.

Here are excerpts from his column in the Washington Post.

Though I spent more than five years on active duty during the 1970s as an Army infantry officer and an additional 23 years in the Reserves, I never fired a weapon other than in training, and I spent no time in a combat zone. …nearly half of the 4.5 million active-duty service members and reservists over the past decade were never deployed overseas. Among those who were, many never experienced combat. …support jobs aren’t particularly hazardous. Police officers, firefighters and construction workers face more danger than Army public affairs specialists, Air Force mechanics, Marine Corps legal assistants, Navy finance clerks or headquarters staff officers.

So what’s the point? Well, this former soldier thinks that benefits are too generous.

And yet, the benefits flow lavishly. …Even though I spent 80 percent of my time in uniform as a reservist, I received an annual pension in 2013 of $24,990, to which I contributed no money while serving. …My family and I have access to U.S. military bases worldwide, where we can use the fitness facilities at no charge and take advantage of the tax-free prices at the commissaries and post exchanges. The most generous benefit of all is Tricare. This year I paid just $550 for family medical insurance. In the civilian sector, the average family contribution for health care in 2013 was $4,565… Simply put, I’m getting more than I gave. Tricare for military retirees and their families is so underpriced that it’s more of a gift than a benefit. …budget deficits are tilting America toward financial malaise. Our elected representatives will have to summon the courage to confront the costs of benefits and entitlements and make hard choices. Some “no” votes when it comes to our service members and, in particular, military retirees will be necessary.

The entire column is informative and thoughtful. My only quibble is that it would be more accurate to say “an expanding burden of government is tilting America toward financial malaise.”

But I shouldn’t nitpick, even though I think it’s important to focus on the underlying problem of spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

Simply stated, it’s refreshing to read someone who writes that his group should get fewer taxpayer-financed goodies. And I like the idea of reserving generous benefits for those who put their lives at risk, or actually got injured.

Last but not least, I periodically share stories that highlight challenging public policy issues, even for principled libertarians.

You can check out some of my prior examples of “you be the judge” by clicking here.

Today, we have another installment.

The New York Times has reported that a mom and dad in the United Kingdom were arrested because their kid was too fat.

The parents of an 11-year-old boy were arrested in Britain on suspicion of neglect and child cruelty after authorities grew alarmed about the child’s weight. The boy, who like his parents was not identified, weighed 210 pounds. …In a statement, the police said that “obesity and neglect of children” were sensitive issues, but that its child abuse investigation unit worked with health care and social service agencies to ensure a “proportionate and necessary” response. The police said in the statement that “intervention at this level is very rare and will only occur where other attempts to protect the child have been unsuccessful.”

So was this a proper example of state intervention?

My instinct is to say no. After all, even bad parents presumably care about their kids. And they’ll almost certainly do a better job of taking care of them than a government bureaucracy.

But there are limits. Even strict libertarians, for instance, will accept government intervention if parents are sadistically beating a child.

And if bad parents were giving multiple shots of whiskey to 7-year olds every single night, that also would justify intervention in the minds of almost everybody.

On the other hand, would any of us want the state to intervene simply because parents don’t do a good job overseeing homework? Or because they let their kids play outside without supervision (a real issue in the United States, I’m embarrassed to admit)?

The answer hopefully is no.

But how do we decide when we have parents who are over-feeding a kid?

My take, for what it’s worth, is that the size of kids is not a legitimate function of government. My heart might want there to be intervention, but my head tells me that bureaucrats can’t be trusted to exercise this power prudently.

P.S. I guess “bye bye burger boy” in the United Kingdom didn’t work very well.

P.P.S. But the U.K. government does fund foreign sex travel, and that has to burn some calories.

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If you have any long-term Japanese investments, sell them soon.

How do you say “Barack” in Japanese?

In part, that’s because the Japanese Prime Minister announced another Keynesian spending binge earlier this year – even though several so-called stimulus plans in Japan have flopped over the past two decades (Keynesian economics doesn’t work anywhere, but that’s a topic for another day).

Adding to the burden of government spending is not exactly prudent behavior for a nation that already has the highest level of debt among all industrialized countries.

But the main reason I’m so pessimistic about Japan is that the government has decided to deal with the problem of runaway government spending by imposing  permanently higher taxes on the private sector.

I’m not kidding. Let’s look at parts of a recent Reuters report.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will…raise the national sales tax to 8 percent in April from 5 percent, a final draft of the government economic plan, seen by Reuters, shows.

Cartoon Fiscal Cliff 3

Japan’s government isn’t even pretending to restrain spending!

And to make a bad situation even worse, some of the money will be used for yet another faux stimulus package.

Abe ordered his government to compile the stimulus package to be announced on Tuesday. It features public-works spending for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The main problem, though, is that Japan’s real fiscal problem is an ever-increasing burden of government spending. The tax increase won’t solve that problem. Indeed, it will give politicians an excuse to postpone much-need reforms.

Surprisingly, the Reuters report acknowledges these problems.

The government has done little to rein in spending…, so some critics doubt Tuesday’s move will be enough to get Japan on track to achieve its goal of halving the budget deficit – excluding debt service and income from debt sales – by the fiscal year to March 2016 and balance it five years later. …any improvement in government revenue from the tax increase is likely to be quickly overwhelmed by expenditures in a country where a rapidly ageing society and generous public services are blowing an ever-bigger hole in the budget.

Time to “decisively” raise taxes!

So why is the Prime Minister doing something that won’t work? Apparently this shows he is decisive. This is not a joke.

…pressing ahead with the tax hike bolsters the image Abe has sought to foster of a decisive leader, withstanding opposition from his advisers and some of his own party.

Gee, isn’t it wonderful that Japan’s Prime Minister decisively wants to do the wrong thing and decisively put his nation deeper in a ditch.

While rational people are puzzled by the Japanese government’s self-defeating decision to raise taxes, there is one group that is cheering. Here are some excerpts from Tax-News.com about the head bureaucrat from the OECD applauding the greed of Japan’s political class.

The Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Angel Gurria has warmly welcomed the announcement from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the nation will raise its consumption tax from its current five percent levy to eight percent from April 2014. …”As Abe himself has noted, this increase is essential to maintain confidence in Japan and establish a social security system that is sustainable for future generations. I congratulate Prime Minister Abe for this important step and also encourage the government to complete the second hike in the consumption tax rate to 10 percent in 2015.”

So the OECD wants a hike in the VAT now…and another one in just two years. I’m sure Japanese taxpayers are overjoyed to be subsidizing a bunch of bureaucrats in Paris (who get tax-free salaries!) who urge more taxes on other people.

But, to be fair, the OECD wants higher taxes for everybody – including more Obama-style class-warfare taxes in America. The bureaucrats even argue that VATs are good for growth and job creation!

My view, for what it’s worth, is that this is another piece of evidence showing that the VAT is a money machine for big government. Not just in Japan, but also in Europe.

And the same would be true in America. This video explains further.

P.S. Here are some examples of how the Japanese government wastes money, though regulation of coffee enemas is my favorite example of government stupidity from Japan.

P.P.S. Click here, here, and here to enjoy some very good cartoons on the VAT.

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Good fiscal policy doesn’t require heavy lifting. Governments simply need to limit the burden of government spending.

The key variable is making sure spending doesn’t consume ever-larger shares of economic output. In other words, follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

It’s possible for a nation to have a large public sector and be fiscally stable. Growth won’t be very impressive, but big government doesn’t automatically mean collapse. Sweden and Denmark are good role models for this approach.

And it’s even easier for a jurisdiction to have a small government and be fiscally stable, particularly since less spending and lower taxes are associated with prosperity. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland are good examples.

Unfortunately, many nations face fiscal death spirals. The burden of government spending keeps climbing, while private sectors gets hit over and over again with higher taxes. This destructive combination inevitably leads to fiscal collapse.

I’ve warned about potential fiscal crises in France, Greece, and the United Kingdom. I’ve even noted that the United States has a very dismal future if government policy stays on autopilot.

More spending and higher taxes!

But Japan may be poster child for reckless and irresponsible tax and spending policy.

Even though the public sector already is far too big and even though the government has incurred more debt than any other developed economy, the new Prime Minster thinks another Keynesian stimulus package is the recipe for economic revival.

I’m not joking. Even though the economy has been stagnant for 20 years – a period that has seen several so-called stimulus schemes, the government wants to throw good money after bad.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the New York Times approves of this new pork-fest.

The $116 billion stimulus package unveiled Friday by Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is a step in the right direction… Mr. Abe’s package of public-works spending…, investment tax credits and more spending on education and health care could help jump start the moribund Japanese economy. … Some forward-looking steps, like expanded health care spending, are already in the stimulus package.

Though if you read the entire editorial, at least the NYT acknowledged that this so-called stimulus should be accompanied by some long-term reforms such as fewer subsidies for politically powerful sectors of the Japanese economy.

Japan’s Fiscal Suicide

Now let’s shift to the tax side of the fiscal equation. We know that Japan has some of the highest tax rates in the industrialized world. Indeed, until last year, Japan was the only nation to have a higher corporate tax rate than the United States.

These high tax rates undermine competitiveness and hamper growth. Simply stated, the government is discouraging work, saving, investment, entrepreneurship, and other productive behaviors.

So what do you think the Japanese government is planning? You guessed it. Even higher tax rates. Here are some excerpts from a story at Tax-news.com.

…the ruling Liberal Democratic  Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, New Komeito, have now turned their attention  to ways to revise taxation, including increased taxes for the wealthiest taxpayers. …While there may be some disagreement within the coalition concerning an inheritance   tax rate rise for the largest estates, which is supported by New Komeito, there   is expected to be less of a problem over raising individual income tax rates   for the highest-earners. A progressive tax package, which might, for example, raise the present highest   40% income tax rate and reduce the JPY50m inheritance tax exemption amount,   is likely to be announced at a coalition meeting expected later this month.

I’m not going to pretend that I know when Japan’s economy implodes, but I think that collapse is almost inevitable at this point. Class warfare tax policy and Keynesian fiscal policy are not a recipe for a good outcome.

The real mystery is why both a state and a nation on the other side of the Pacific Ocean want to copy Japan’s suicidal fiscal policy?

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For years, I’ve been warning that a value-added tax (VAT) would be a terrible idea. Simply stated, politicians would have no reason to control spending or reform entitlements if they had a new source of tax revenue.

In this video, I explain why this European-style national sales tax is a money machine for bigger government.

Japan’s politicians are confirming my argument. Here are some details from a new report in the Wall Street Journal.

Japan’s parliament passed a landmark tax bill Friday, finalizing the legal framework to double the nation’s sales tax by 2015 as a step toward fiscal reconstruction. The upper house enactment of the contentious bill marks the end of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s tortuous 12-month road to raise the tax to 8% in April 2014 and 10% in October 2015. …The sales tax hike will be the first since 1997, when the rate was raised to the current 5% from 3%.

Wow, more than tripling the tax between 1997 and 2015. I wonder how long it will take Japan’s political class to boost the rate to 20 percent?

But that’s only part of the story.

Mr. Noda also had to promise to dissolve the lower house “in the near term” in exchange for…endorsement of the bill in the opposition-controlled upper house.

Wow, if I’m reading that passage correctly, it sounds like Prime Minister Noda is willing to lose power in order to impose this new tax. This shows an amazing amount of greed for new revenue.

I’m surprised, though, that his party didn’t kick him out and elect a new leader. They must be as politically incompetent as the supposedly right-wing party in Slovakia that surrendered power to the socialists in order to get support for the Greek bailout.

However, the WSJ article also suggests that the tax is not a done deal.

The bill includes a provision making an “economic upturn” a condition for implementing the rate hike. The government refused to specify in the bill exactly what an upturn entails, and lawmakers have different interpretations. DPJ tax policy chief Hirohisa Fujii told Dow Jones that only an economic shrinkage of 3% or more should prevent the tax increase from taking place.

Isn’t that remarkable. This onerous tax hike can only go into effect if there’s an “economic upturn,” and one of the sleazy politicians from the ruling party is defining an economic contraction of -2.99 percent as meeting that test.

Sound like Mr. Fujii should become friends with the Obama Administration officials who relied on Keynesian economic theory to concoct an infamous prediction that unemployment would never rise above 8 percent if Washington squandered more than $800 billion on a faux stimulus.

But if he’s smart, Mr. Fujii will grab as much loot as possible and emigrate. Japan’s long-term finances are a disaster, and the VAT increase is a pretty good sign that politicians have no intention of turning the ship of state before it rams the fiscal iceberg.

And now you’ll understand even more why I’m worried about the pro-VAT sympathies of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

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Last year, I expressed skepticism that the White House was serious about reducing the corporate tax rate. And, sure enough, when the Obama Administration produced a plan earlier this year, it was a disappointing mix of a few good provisions and several unpalatable proposals.

This is unfortunate because the United States has one of the most punitive corporate tax systems in the developed world. Indeed, every singe European welfare state has a lower corporate tax rate than America – even leftists nations such as France and Sweden!

For a long time, only Japan imposed a more onerous tax rate than the United States. But even that now has changed. After toying with the idea since 2010, the Japanese government finally pulled the trigger and reduced the nation’s tax rate.

Here’s a brief blurb from Reuters.

The United States will hold the dubious distinction starting on Sunday of having the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate after Japan’s drops to 38.01 percent… Japan’s reduction , prompted by years of pressure from Japanese politicians hoping to spur economic growth, will give that country the world’s second-highest rate. …The average 2012 corporate tax rate for the 34 developed countries is 25.4 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

That leaves America in the unenviable position of having the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate, somewhere between 39 percent-40 percent. This video explains why this isn’t a good idea.

It was my very first video, so it’s not a polished product, but the information is right on the mark.

The moral of the story is very straightforward. A high corporate tax rate is a self-imposed wound to American competitiveness. But that’s only part of the story. America also has a “worldwide” tax system, which forces U.S. companies to suffer a big disadvantage when trying to compete for market share in other nations.

No wonder even officials from the Clinton Administration have begun to argue that the corporate tax rate should be significantly lowered.

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There are several semi-permanent fiscal policy fights in Washington, most of which somehow are related to the big issue of whether government should be bigger or smaller.

Today, I want to focus on two of those battles, and point to developments in Japan to make the case that the left is wrong.

First, let’s look at a couple of sentences from a Wall Street Journal story about Japanese fiscal policy.

Top officials from Japan’s government and ruling party formally endorsed a revised bill to double the country’s sales tax, despite strong objections from other party members, in a sign of their determination to rein in the nation’s soaring public debt. …The legislation will double the current 5% sales tax in two stages by 2015 as a way to help pay for the nation’s growing social welfare costs as the population ages.

I realize I’m a strange person and I look at everything through a libertarian lens, but I think this story provides strong support for my viewpoint on two important issues.

1. Higher taxes lead to higher spending – Just like in the United States, politicians in Japan claim that they have to raise taxes to deal with deficits and debt. Indeed, the excerpt above includes that assertion, reporting that the VAT increase would be “to rein in the nation’s soaring debt.”

I think this is nonsense. Politicians are motivated by a desire to finance bigger government. And that’s what’s happening in Japan. Later in the article, we see that the real purpose of the tax hike is to “pay for the nation’s growing social welfare costs.”

2. The VAT is a money machine for big government – I’ve cited the European evidence to show that small VATs become big VATs in part because it is a hidden tax. My statist friends often respond by saying I need to look at Japan, Canada, and Australia, where VATs haven’t been increased. I then respond by saying it’s just a matter of time. So, even though I would like to be wrong, Japan is confirming my fears.

That being said, I must acknowledge the possibility that Canada and Australia may prove me wrong. And I will be happy if that’s what happens. Both nations have done a pretty good job of restraining the growth of government (see Table 25 of this OECD data), and I don’t see any immediate threat of VAT hikes. But I’m not holding my breath for what happens 10 years from now.

Last but not least, I’ve decided the title of this post is inaccurate. The left isn’t wrong. They know the higher taxes lead to higher spending, and they know the VAT is a money machine for big government. They just don’t publicly admit these are the results they want.

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In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal, I explained why Mitt Romney’s interest in a value-added tax is deeply troubling.

One of my key points was that the VAT is a money machine for big government.

But don’t believe me. Look at Japan, where the politicians see increases in the VAT as a way of financing a much larger burden of government spending. Here’s some of what is being reported by Bloomberg.

Noda reshuffled his cabinet last week, aiming to win support for doubling Japan’s 5 percent national sales tax by 2015… Japan’s finances are “getting worse and worse every day, every second,” Takahira Ogawa, Singapore-based director of sovereign ratings at S&P… Japan’s aging population is also weighing on Noda’s struggle to achieve fiscal health. Social-security expenses have more than doubled in two decades and will account for 52 percent of general spending for the year starting in April, according to a budget proposal the cabinet approved last month.

The key point in this excerpt is that the VAT is a substitute for entitlement reform. Without the VAT, politicians might actually reform the welfare state. But because of the VAT, they want to take the easy (but extremely destructive) route and boost the tax burden.

This is why I get so agitated about the threat of a VAT in America, as illustrated by this recent appearance on Larry Kudlow’s show.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to know that the fiscal pyromaniacs at the International Monetary Fund support a bigger tax burden in Japan. Here’s another passage from the Bloomberg story.

The International Monetary Fund has said a gradual increase of Japan’s sales tax to 15 percent “could provide roughly half of the fiscal adjustment needed to put the public-debt ratio on a downward path.”

Isn’t it nice that we give these international bureaucrats big tax-free salaries so they can run around the world pushing for bailouts and higher taxes.

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Last January, I identified five things that worried me for 2011. Here’s what had me concerned, along with some ex post facto analysis about whether I was right to fret:

1. A back-door bailout of the states from the Federal Reserve – Thankfully, I was way off base with this concern. Not only was there no bailout, but Congress even got rid of Obama’s wretched “build America bonds.”

2. A front-door bailout of Europe by the United States – The bad news is that there have been bailouts of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal via the clowns at the IMF. The good news is that the bailouts haven’t been as big or extensive as I originally feared.

3. Republicans getting duped by Obama and supporting a VAT – I was needlessly concerned about a VAT sellout, but I was right to worry about tax increases. GOPers repeatedly expressed willingness to surrender, notwithstanding their anti-tax hike promises.

4. Regulatory imposition of global warming policy – The EPA has been busy imposing lots of costly regulation, but it appears that my fears on this issue were misplaced.

5. U.N. control of the Internet – As far as I can tell, the statists did not make any progress on this issue, so my concerns were unfounded.

This year, I’m not going to put together a list of things that should make us worry. After all, we should always be concerned. As Thomas Jefferson is reported to have warned, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” And Gideon Tucker correctly noted that, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

Instead, I’m going to come up with a list of predictions. But I won’t try to predict the economy. As I already have explained, economists are lousy short-term forecasters. If we actually knew what was going to happen, we’d be rich.

So here are some policy and political predictions for 2012.

1. Obama will win reelection – Unless I’m wildly wrong, Romney will be the nominee, and he is a very uninspiring choice. That gives Obama somewhat of an advantage. More important, I think the unemployment rate will continue to drift downwards (even if only because workers get discouraged and drop out of the labor force) and that will allow Obama to claim – with lots of help from the media – that his policies have started to work.

2. Greece will drop the euro – Politicians have three ways of financing government spending. They can tax, they can borrow, and they can print money. Nations such as Greece already impose stifling tax burdens and further tax increases probably would reduce revenue because of the Laffer Curve. Nations such as Greece already are so indebted that nobody will lend them money, especially since they’ve already defaulted on existing debt payments. This means Greece has to go with the final option and drop the euro so it can print lots of drachmas.  (Greece could solve its problems by cutting spending, of course, but let’s not engage in ridiculous fantasy).

3. At least one major European nation will default – Yes, the Baltic nations have shown it is possible to make real spending cuts and restore fiscal stability, but I don’t expect other European nations to learn from those success stories. So the only question is whether nations such as Spain and Italy default right away, or whether they get additional bailouts that set the stage for even bigger defaults in the future. The answer probably depends on Germany, and I’m guessing Merkel will finally do the right thing (if only for political reasons) and reject additional bailouts.

4. China and Japan have major problems, but will survive 2012 without crisis – I’ve already written that I’m not overly impressed by China and that I think there’s a bubble in the Chinese economy. And I’ve commented on the enormous debt burden in Japan. But even though I think both nations are very vulnerable to economic trouble, I’m going out on a limb and predicting that they’ll make it through this year without a major problem.

5. The Georgia Bulldogs will win college football’s national championship, demonstrating that there is justice in the universe.

P.S. I have been somewhat accurate in my election predictions and I’ve been getting some requests to predict what will happen in Iowa. If I get motivated, I may do that on Tuesday morning.

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Thanks to decades of reckless spending by European welfare states, the newspapers are filled with headlines about debt, default, contagion, and bankruptcy.

We know that Greece and Ireland already have received direct bailouts, and other European welfare states are getting indirect bailouts from the European Central Bank, which is vying with the Federal Reserve in a contest to see which central bank can win the “Most Likely to Appease the Political Class” Award.

But which nation will be the next domino to fall? Who will get the next direct bailout?

Some people think total government debt is the key variable, and there’s been a lot of talk that debt levels of 90 percent of GDP represent some sort of fiscal Maginot Line. Once nations get above that level, there’s a risk of some sort of crisis.

But that’s not necessarily a good rule of thumb. This chart, based on 2010 data from the Economist Intelligence Unit (which can be viewed with a very user-friendly map), shows that Japan’s debt is nearly 200 percent of GDP, yet Japanese debt is considered very safe, based on the market for credit default swaps, which measures the cost of insuring debt. Indeed, only U.S. debt is seen as a better bet.

Interest payments on debt may be a better gauge of a nation’s fiscal health. The next chart (2011 data) shows the same countries, and the two nations with the highest interest costs, Greece and Ireland, already have been bailed out. Interestingly, Japan is in the best shape, even though it has the biggest debt. This shows why interest rates are very important. If investors think a nation is safe, they don’t require high interest rates to compensate them for the risk of default (fears of future inflation also can play a role, since investors don’t like getting repaid with devalued currency).

Based on this second chart, it appears that Italy, Portugal, and Belgium are the next dominos to topple. Portugal may be the best bet (no pun intended) based on credit default swap rates, and that certainly is consistent with the current speculation about an official bailout.

Spain is the wild card in this analysis. It has the second-lowest level of both debt and interest payments as shares of GDP, but the CDS market shows that Spanish government debt is a greater risk than bonds from either Italy or Belgium.

By the way, the CDS market shows that lending money to Illinois and California is also riskier than lending to either Italy or Belgium.

The moral of the story is that there is no magic point where deficit spending leads to a fiscal crisis, but we do know that it is a bad idea for governments to engage in reckless spending over a long period of time. That’s a recipe for stifling taxes and large deficits. And when investors see the resulting combination of sluggish growth and rising debt, eventually they will run out of patience.

The Bush-Obama policy of big government has moved America in the wrong direction. But if the data above is any indication, America probably has some breathing room. What happens on the budget this year may be an indication of whether we use that time wisely.

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Too bad the gift-giving season is already over. Thanks to this story about three men who were arrested by Japanese police for providing coffee enemas without regulatory approval, I now know that I could have purchased a “rectal infusion kit” for only $110. But since Senator Reid will still be around next Christmas, let’s focus on the public policy angle and ask ourselves why Japan’s government has licensing rules for coffee enemas?

In almost all cases, licensing rules are imposed by governments to protect politically powerful providers in a certain industry. The Institute for Justice has done heroic work on this issue, and they are always fighting to break up government-sanctioned cartels that limit competition, lead to higher prices, and make it hard for new providers to enter the market.

I’m sure these Japanese rules exist to unfairly enrich that nation’s medical profession. I can’t help but wonder, though, whether Japan’s bureaucrats have covered all the bases. Are tea enemas also covered by the regulations? What about if you use “fair trade certified” coffee from Starbucks? Are people allowed to buy toilets with built-in enemas? And what about bidets? Surely regular people can’t be trusted to operate such equipments without some sort of government involvement!

So many…um…fascinating questions to ponder. Anyhow, here’s a blurb from the story.

Police in Chiba Prefecture arrested three men this month on suspicion of violating Japan’s Medical Practitioners Law by providing coffee enemas without the proper medical qualifications, according to local media reports. Chikayoshi Hishiki (55) and two associates offered coffee-based enemas as a beauty treatment at their now-defunct alternative medicine clinics, according to leading daily Sankei Shimbun. The three suspects denied any wrongdoing, claiming they only provided the equipment and cleaned up afterwards, while the clients themselves administered the procedure, the report said. Some Japanese have become interested in filling their bums with java, believing they have discovered a secret dieting technique used by celebrities in the US and Europe.

CYA Disclaimer: Just because the Internet is a handy way of accessing information, that doesn’t mean that everything you read is true. So I make no claims that this story is 100 percent true, though governments are so stupid that I’m guessing it is accurate.

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Sometimes it’s not a good idea to be at the top of a list. And now that Japan has announced a five-percentage point reduction in its corporate tax rate, the United States will have the dubious honor of imposing the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate. Here’s an excerpt from the report in the New York Times.

Japan will cut its corporate income tax rate by 5 percentage points in a bid to shore up its sluggish economy, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said here Monday evening.Companies have urged the government to lower the country’s effective corporate tax rate — which now stands at 40 percent, around the same rate as that in the United States — to stimulate investment in Japan and to encourage businesses to create more jobs. Lowering the corporate tax burden by 5 percentage points could increase Japan’s gross domestic product by 2.6 percentage points, or 14.4 trillion yen ($172 billion), over the next three years, according to estimates by Japan’s Trade Ministry. …In a survey of nearly 23,000 companies published this month by the credit research firm Teikoku Data Bank, more than 44 percent of respondents cited lower corporate taxes as a prerequisite to stronger economic growth in Japan. …A 5 percentage-point tax rate cut is unlikely to do much to solve Japan’s woes, however. An effective corporate tax rate of 35 percent would still be higher than South Korea’s 24 percent or Germany’s 29 percent, for example. …Meanwhile, the government is trying to offset lost tax revenue with tax increases elsewhere, which could blunt the effect of reduced corporate tax burdens.

I suspect the Japanese government’s estimate of $172 billion of additional output is overly generous. After all, the corporate tax rate in Japan will still be very high (the government originally was considering a bigger cut). And foolish Japanese politicians will probably raise taxes elsewhere. But there will be some additional growth since the corporate tax rate is an especially damaging way to collect revenue.

But I’m not losing sleep about Japan’s economic future. I hope they do well, of course, but my bigger concern is the American economy. The U.S. corporate tax rate of nearly 40 percent (including state corporate burdens) already is far too high, particularly since America adds to the competitive disadvantage of U.S.-domiciled firms by being one of the few nations to impose an extra layer of tax on foreign-source income. Japan’s proposed rate reduction, however,  means the high tax rate in America will be an even bigger hindrance to job creation.

It’s also worth noting that the average corporate tax rate in Europe has now dropped to less than 24 percent, so even welfare states have figured out that a high tax burden on business doesn’t make sense in a competitive global economy.

Sometimes you can fall farther behind if you stand still and everyone else moves forward. That’s a good description of what’s happening in the battle for a pro-growth corporate tax system. By doing nothing, America’s self-destructive corporate tax system is becoming, well, even more destructive.

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The news that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy has generated a lot of attention. It shouldn’t. There are roughly 10 times as many people in China as there are in Japan, so the fact that total gross domestic product in China is now bigger than total gross domestic product in Japan is hardly a sign of Chinese economic supremacy. Yes, China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom – which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. According to the World Bank, per capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power parity) was $6,710 for China in 2009, compared to $33,280 for Japan (and $46,730 for the U.S.). If I got to choose where to be a middle-class person, China certainly wouldn’t be my first pick.

This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. Better to have $6,710 of per capita GDP than $3,710. But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy. The country’s nominal communist leadership has allowed economic liberalization, but China is still an economically repressed nation. Economic Freedom of the World ranks China 82 out of 141, just one spot above Russia, and the Index of Economic Freedom has an even lower score, 140 out of 179 nations.

Hopefully, China will continue to move in the right direction. As Jonah Goldberg notes in his Townhall column, it is good for America to have China become a more prosperous nation.

Yes, technically, China’s gross domestic product is now slightly ahead of Japan’s. But GDP is a gross statistic. It doesn’t tell you nearly as much as you might think. In a very real way, China is still poorer than Japan. It’s also poorer than Tunisia, Ecuador, Gabon, Kazakhstan and Namibia. …China still has enormous problems, many of which aren’t reflected in its GDP growth rates, and without democracy, a free press and the rule of law, we can’t know what all of the problems are until they explode (and neither can the Chinese). But all of this misses the most important point. Economic “competitiveness” is a con. It assumes that when other countries prosper, America loses. That’s nonsense. If the average Chinese worker were as rich as the average Japanese worker, it would be an economic windfall for the United States. Conversely, if China’s economy imploded tomorrow, we would “gain” competitively but suffer economically. The cult of competitiveness is just a ruse used to justify the ambitions of economic planners and the pundits who worship them.

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The United States has a very anti-competitive corporate tax regime. The federal tax rates is 35 percent and the average of state corporate tax systems brings the rate to nearly 40 percent. In Europe, by contrast, the average corporate tax rate is about 25 percent. Depending on which measure is used, the United States and Japan have been rivals for the dubious prize of having the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world. But that’s about to change. According to a story that I saw linked on the Tax Foundation blog, the new Japanese government intends to lower its corporate tax rate by 10 to 15 percentage points. This means America will have no rivals in the contest for having the most anti-growth business tax system in the world. This is something to keep in mind the next time you hear a politician complaining about jobs going to China and India.

Japan’s new government plans to cut corporate tax closer to international norms as it tries to haul Asia’s biggest economy out of a long slump, the economy minister said in a report Friday. The government is aiming to cut tax on company earnings by five percentage points next fiscal year, from an effective 40 percent now, the Nikkei business daily quoted Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Masayuki Naoshima as saying. “It’s a fact that international corporate tax rates are 10 to 15 points lower than Japan’s,” said Naoshima, who is part of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s new cabinet sworn in this week. “Over the medium term, the government will aim to bring the rate down to around the global standard,” he said. …”It is now the time to decide (on cutting corporate tax) for the sake of future economic vitality, employment and securing increased tax revenues,” the minister said. “Japan’s economy has basically been in a slump for the past 20 years and people have been overwhelmed by a sense of stagnation.”

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Total government debt is about 115 percent of GDP in Greece, which clearly is one of the factors that spooked investors and led to the bailout. But Japan – at least on paper – is in much worse shape with government debt approaching 200 percent of GDP (see page 80). And with a grim demographic outlook (lots of aging people and comparatively few young people to enter the workforce), the nation’s fiscal position seems dismal. Yet the Japanese government is widely perceived as more trustworthy, particularly by domestic savers who finance much of the government’s debt. At some point, however, one would imagine that the proverbial chickens will come home to roost and Japan will face a fiscal crisis. Here’s some interesting background from a New York Times story:

Seeking to bring its spiraling debt under control, Japan has undertaken an unlikely exercise: lawmakers are forcing bureaucrats to defend their budgets at public hearings and are slashing wanton spending. The hearings, streamed live on the Internet, are part of an effort by the eight-month-old government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to tackle the country’s public debt, which has mushroomed to twice the size of Japan’s $5 trillion economy after years of profligate spending. Greece’s debt crisis, which has panicked investors and forced the rest of Europe to put together a multibillion-dollar bailout, has fed fears in Tokyo that if spending is unchecked, Japan could become the center of the next global financial crisis. …The target of the most recent hearings, which began Friday, is Japan’s web of quasi-government agencies and public corporations – nonprofits that draw some 3.4 trillion yen ($36 billion) in annual public funds, but operate with little public scrutiny. Critics have long argued that these organizations, many of which offer cushy executive jobs to retired public officials, epitomize the wasteful spending that has driven Japan’s public debt to dangerous levels. The daily testimony by cowering bureaucrats, covered extensively in local media, has given the Japanese their first-ever detailed look at state spending. So far, viewers have looked on in disbelief over the apparent absurdity of some of the government spending. In one example scrutinized on Tuesday, the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization, which is government financed, spent 130 million yen ($1.4 million) last year on a 3-D movie theater used to show footage of scenery from the countryside. The movie dome, which also plays recordings of chirping insects and babbling streams, is closed to the public and is used to study how the human brain reacts to different types of scenery, said Takami Komae, head of the organization’s rural engineering department. The findings will be used to help rural areas think of ways to attract more tourists, he testified. Politicians ridiculed the project. “The dome is located in the countryside anyway, isn’t it?” said Manabu Terada, a Democratic Party lawmaker, at a public hearing in Tokyo. “Can’t we just step outside and see the real thing?” …Under particular scrutiny at the hearings have been the retired ministry officials who take comfortable positions at the government-linked organizations in a practice known as “amakudari,” or “descent from heaven.” The network of these agencies is complex, including 104 large organizations supervised directly by the government and 6,625 smaller public corporations. Critics say that many of the former bureaucrats use their connections in government to win public money for dubious construction and research projects, then delegate the work while their organizations pocket much of the budget as administrative fees. Aki Wakabayashi, an author and former worker at a government-supported labor think tank, has been one of the most fervent critics of government spending on these organizations. In 2001, she blew the whistle on her institute, describing lavish foreign “research” trips for the former bureaucrats leading the institute – complete with first-class air travel and stays in five-star hotels – and clerks who drew researcher salaries while spending their days chatting and reading magazines.

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