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I periodically get asked who should be in the White House.

Since I’m a policy wonk rather than a political pundit, I generally sidestep the question.

Though it probably isn’t too hard to figure out my preference if you peruse what I’ve written about previous presidents.

I’m a huge fan of both Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge, for instance.

But I’m definitely not partisan. I’ve also said nice things about John F. Kennedy and even Bill Clinton.

And to further demonstrate my independence, it’s time for me to endorse another Democrat.

Yes, you read correctly. The person I want in the White House is….(drum roll, please)…the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, Grover Cleveland.

He’s mostly famous for being the only President to serve non-consecutive terms (he won in 1884, lost in 1888, and won again in 1892). And perhaps also for marrying a 21-year woman while in the White House.

But he should be remembered instead – and with great fondness – for his belief in classical liberal principles.

Let’s start with this blurb from his Wikipedia page.

Cleveland was the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats who opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, inflation, imperialism, and subsidies to business, farmers, or veterans. His crusade for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era. Cleveland won praise for his honesty, self-reliance, integrity, and commitment to the principles of classical liberalism. He relentlessly fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism. …He also used his appointment powers to reduce the number of federal employees, as many departments had become bloated with political time-servers. …Cleveland used the veto far more often than any president up to that time.

Perhaps his most glorious moment came when he rejected the Texas Seed Bill.

After a drought had ruined crops in several Texas counties, Congress appropriated $10,000 to purchase seed grain for farmers there. Cleveland vetoed the expenditure. In his veto message, he espoused a theory of limited government:

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. …the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

Wow, can you imagine any President saying these words today?

President Cleveland’s steadfast behavior and sound principles have garnered him some well-deserved praise.

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily back in 2011, Paul Whitfield opined about Cleveland’s track record.

If free-market advocates could resurrect a U.S. president to deal with today’s problems, many would choose Grover Cleveland. …He vetoed hundreds of spending bills, refusing to succumb to political temptation whether it was wrapped in patriotism or sob stories. …Union military veterans had become a powerful special interest group. Expenditures on their pensions increased about 500% over 20 years… When Congress passed a bill granting pensions to veterans for injuries not caused by military service, he vetoed it. …He vetoed 414 bills during his eight years — 1885-89 and 1893-97 — in the White House, forcing Congress to curb its appetite for spending.

President Cleveland even had a libertarian approach to overseas entanglements.

Cleveland had a simple approach to foreign policy. He said America should “never get caught up in conflict with any foreign state unless attacked or otherwise provoked.”

Let’s go back even further in time. Here’s some of what Lawrence Reed wrote in 1996.

I give high marks to those presidents who actively sought to uphold the Constitution, and who worked to expand the frontiers of freedom. I’ll take a president who leaves us alone over one who can’t keep his hands out of other people’s pockets any day of the week. Honesty, frugality, candor, and a love for liberty are premium qualities in my kind of president. The one man among post-war presidents (post-Civil War, that is) who exemplified those qualities best was Grover Cleveland… Cleveland took a firm stand against a nascent welfare state. Frequent warnings against the redistributive nature of government were characteristic of his tenure. He regarded as a “serious danger” the notion that government should dispense favors and advantages to individuals or their businesses. …Disdainful of pork barrel politics, he felt that those who would use and gain from such projects should pay for them. …He rightly argued that tariffs stifle competition, raise prices, and violate the people’s freedom to patronize the sellers of their choice.

The article points out that Cleveland wasn’t perfect.

Indeed, the squalid Department of Agriculture was elevated to the Cabinet during his tenure.

But, on net, he pushed for liberty. Heck, look at this quote from President Cleveland, which Lawrence Reed shared in an article from 1999.

When more of the people’s sustenance is exacted through the form of taxation than is necessary to meet the just obligations of government and the expense of its economical administration, such exaction becomes ruthless extortion and a violation of the fundamental principles of a free government.

Wow. Taxation to fund beyond limited government equals “ruthless extortion.” That warms my libertarian heart!

Robert Higgs, the great economic historian, shared another great quote from President Cleveland.

Cleveland believed in keeping government expenditure at the minimum required to carry out essential constitutional functions. “When a man in office lays out a dollar in extravagance,” declared Cleveland, “he acts immorally by the people.”

Let’s begin to wrap up with some wisdom from Burton Folsom, who wrote about President Cleveland for the Freeman back in 2004.

For a U.S. president, one test of this courage is the willingness to veto bad bills— bills that spend too much money or that contradict Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. In that test of character, perhaps no president passed more convincingly than Grover Cleveland… During Cleveland’s first term (1885–1889), he vetoed 414 bills, more than twice the total vetoed by all previous presidents. …Over half of Cleveland’s vetoes involved pensions to Civil War veterans. Congressmen, especially Republicans, were increasingly trying to funnel taxpayer dollars to unqualified veterans in hopes of capturing “the soldier vote.”

Sadly, politicians today not only go after the “soldier vote,” but also the “farmer vote,” the “elderly vote,” the “urban vote,” etc, etc, etc.

And we don’t have principled leaders like Grover Cleveland with a veto pen.

Let’s look at some historical budget data to understand how truly lucky the nation was during Cleveland’s era. During the 1880s, in his first term, total primary spending (which is total outlays minus expenditures for net interest) averaged just 1.7 percent of GDP.

And this was before the income tax was enacted. After all, there was no need to have a punitive levy when the fiscal burden of government was so small.

P.S. Barton Folsom was the narrator of the superb video from Prager University on government-controlled investment.

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Since I’m not a fan of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I think that puts me in a good position to fairly assess whether the candidates are being dishonest.

And since several media outlets just produced their “fact-checks” on Donald Trump’s acceptance speech to the Republican convention, this is a perfect opportunity to see not only whether Trump was being dishonest but also whether media fact-checking is honest.

Here’s some of the “fact-checking” from NBC., with each indented example being followed by my two cents.

TRUMP CLAIM: Nearly four in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58 percent of African-American youth are now not employed. Two million more Latinos are in poverty today than when the President took his oath of office less than eight years ago.

THE FACTS: Yes, 38 percent of African American children are living in poverty, according to Census data. But Trump isn’t correct that 58 percent of African American youth are unemployed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the African American unemployment rate for those ages 16-19 is 28.4 percent (versus 16.9 percent for all youth that age). And Trump is misleading on his claim about Latinos living in poverty. In 2009, 12.3 million Latinos were living in poverty (with a rate of 25.3 percent). In 2014, the number jumped to 13 million — but the rate actually DECLINED to 23.6 percent.

Shame on NBC for pulling a bait-and-switch. Trump didn’t say that there is a 58-percent unemployment rate among black youth. He said that 58 percent of them aren’t employed.

What NBC doesn’t understand (or deliberately chooses to hide) is that the unemployment rate only counts those “actively” looking for work.

Trump was focusing on labor-force participation.

I’m sure he made that choice because it gave him a number that sounded bad, but there are very good reasons to focus on the share of people employed rather than the unemployment rate (though it’s worth noting that a 28.4 percent unemployment rate for young blacks is plenty scandalous, which raises the question of why Trump didn’t point out that African-Americans have been hurt by Obamanomics).

On the other hand, Trump may be factually wrong about the number of Latinos living in poverty, though you’ll notice below that National Public Radio basically said Trump is right on this issue.

TRUMP CLAIM: President Obama has almost doubled our national debt to more than 19 trillion dollars, and growing.

THE FACTS: He’s right. When Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009, the public debt stood at $10.6 trillion. It is now $19.4 trillion, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Since I’ve already explained that George W. Bush deserves the overwhelming share of the blame for the budget numbers in Fiscal Year 2009 (which started on October 1, 2008), I think NBC actually missed a chance to criticize Trump for either being dishonest or for overstating the case against Obama.

Now let’s see what the New York Times wrote about Trump’s accuracy.

• “Nearly four in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58 percent of African-American youth are not employed.”

Fact Check: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of African Americans ages 16-19 in June was 31.2 percent (among whites of the same age, it was 14.1 percent).

The NYT does the same bait-and-switch as NBC, accusing Trump of saying A when he actually said B.

Is this because of dishonesty or sloppiness? Beats me, though I suspect the former.

• “Household incomes are down more than $4,000 since the year 2000.”

Fact Check: This is mostly true. Median household income in 2000 was $57,724; in 2014, which has the most recent available data, it was $53,657.

My only comment is that I’m surprised the NYT didn’t go after Trump for using 2000 as his starting year, which obviously includes the stagnant big-government Bush years as well as the stagnant big-government Obama years.

• “Our manufacturing trade deficit has reached an all-time high – nearly $800 billion in a single year.”

Fact Check: The goods deficit — more imported goods, less exported goods — was $763 billion last year. But that includes agricultural products and raw materials like coal. Moreover, the total trade deficit last year was only $500 billion because the U.S. runs a trade surplus in services.

I think Trump is wrong about trade. Wildly wrong.

But the NYT is once again doing a bait-and-switch. Trump was talking about the trade is goods, not the overall trade balance.

They could have accurately accused him of selective use of statistics, or even misleading use of statistics. But his claim was accurate (depending whether you think $763 billion is “nearly” $800 billion).

• “President Obama has doubled our national debt to more than $19 trillion, and growing.”

Fact Check: The national debt was $10.6 trillion on the day Obama took office. It was $19.2 trillion in April, so not quite double, but close.

As I explained above, this is an example of the media missing a chance to hit Trump, presumably because journalists don’t understand the budget process.

• “Forty-three million Americans are on food stamps.”

Fact Check: As of October, this figure was largely accurate, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

At least the New York Times didn’t try to spin this number by claiming food stamps are “stimulus.”

Speaking of spin, here’s the fact-checking from National Public Radio.

Nearly 4 in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58% of African-American youth are now not employed.

[Thirty-six percent of African-Americans under 18 were below the poverty line as of 2014, according to the Census Bureau. It’s not entirely clear what Trump means by “not employed,” which is not technically the same as “unemployed,” which counts people who aren’t working and are looking for work. However, the unemployment rate for black Americans ages 16 to 19 was 38.1 percent as of June. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

It’s actually very clear what Trump meant by “not employed.” As should be obvious, it means the share of the population that is not working.

But NPR presumably is pretending to  be stupid so they can do a bait-and-switch and focus on the unemployment rate.

2 million more Latinos are in poverty today than when President Obama took his oath of office less than eight years ago.

[That’s roughly true, by the latest data available. Around 11 million Hispanic-Americans were in poverty in 2008, compared with 13.1 million in 2014. The poverty rate makes more sense to compare, though — that has grown 0.4 points since 2008, but it has also declined lately, down by nearly 3 points since 2010. As for whether President Obama is responsible for this, we get to that below. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

The fact that NBC and NPR disagree appears to be based on whether one uses the total number of poor Latinos in 2008 or 2009.

Obama took his oath of office in early 2009, so it seems that NPR missed a chance to attack Trump.

Though without knowing how the Census Bureau measures the number of people in poverty in any given year (average for the entire year? the number as of January 1? July 1? December 31?), there’s no way to know whether Trump exaggerated or misspoke.

Another 14 million people have left the workforce entirely.

[There’s a lot going on in this statistic. So here goes: Trump may be talking about the number of adults not in the labor force — that is, neither working nor looking for work (so it includes retirees and students, for example). That figure has climbed by 14 million since January 2009 (importantly, this isn’t people leaving the labor force; it’s just people not in it, period). But while labor force participation is relatively low, the labor force has still been growing — Trump’s 14 million figure might imply that it’s not. And that low labor force participation isn’t entirely about a tough economy — a lot of it is simple demographics. In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office found that half of a recent 3-point drop in the rate had been due to baby boomers retiring. The other half was economic factors. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

That’s a long-winded way of saying that Trump’s number was accurate, but they want to imply his number is inaccurate.

Household incomes are down more than $4,000 since the year 2000. That’s sixteen years ago.

[That’s true, using median household income data, though he is not measuring from the start of the Obama administration as he is for the other stats here. If he measured from 2008, the drop was $1,656. Measuring from 2000 means measuring from the figure’s near-peak.

[A broader point about all of these economic statistics: A lot of them have been true, but the question is whether Obama is to blame. Higher poverty, for example, doesn’t appear to be Obama’s doing, as we wrote in a fact check last year. Moreover, many experts believe a president generally has only very limited ability to affect the economy. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

As suggested from my earlier analysis, I think it’s fair to point out that Trump was being somewhat arbitrary to use 2000 as his base year.

But it’s amusing to see NPR admit that the number is right but then engage in gymnastics in an effort to excuse the weak economic numbers during Obama’s tenure.

Excessive regulation is costing our country as much as $2 trillion a year, and we will end it very, very quickly.

[A few analyses have found that regulation costs around $2 trillion — one of the best-known, from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, estimated it at around $1.9 trillion this year. But as the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker has pointed out, in the past this figure has been characterized as a “back of the envelope” count, and that moreover, it doesn’t make sense to talk about costs without trying to count the benefits of regulation. — Danielle Kurtzleben]

This is another example of Trump making an accurate point, but NPR then blowing smoke in an attempt to imply he was being dodgy.

Last but not least, here are some assertions from Factcheck.org.

Trump claimed Clinton “plans a massive … tax increase,” but tax experts say 95 percent of taxpayers would see “little or no change” in their taxes under Clinton’s plan.

The fact that Clinton targets the top-5 percent doesn’t change the fact that she’s proposing a very large tax hike.

Trump claimed Clinton “illegally” stored emails on her private server while secretary of state, and deleted 33,000 to cover-up “her crime.” But the FBI cleared Clinton of criminal wrongdoing, and found no evidence of a cover-up.

This isn’t an economic issue, but I can’t resist making a correction.

The FBI Director explicitly pointed out that she repeatedly broke the law.

He simply chose not to recommend prosecution.

He said the “trade deficit in goods … is $800 billion last year alone.” It was nearly that, but it discounts the services the U.S. exports. The total trade deficit for goods and services is just over $500 billion.

As I noted above, Trump is wrong on trade, but the media shouldn’t do a bait-and-switch and criticize him for something he didn’t say.

By the way, the fact that media fact-checkers are largely wrong and dishonest is not a reason to be pro-Trump.

People can decide, if they want, to choose between the lesser of two evils.

My only message is that Trump is wrong on lots of issues, but that’s no excuse for hackery from self-styled fact-checkers.

P.S. Here’s my best Trump humor and here’s my best Hillary humor.

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It’s not easy being a libertarian, especially in election years.

  • Do you choose not to vote because you either reject your choices or even the entire principle of majoritarianism?
  • Do you vote for the Libertarian Party even though that historically is nothing more than an ineffective way of sending a message?
  • Or do you strategically cast a vote for a major-party candidate, fully aware that such a person inevitably will be a disappointment in office?

If you’re normally in the last category, 2016 will be especially difficult.

Let’s start with Trump. On the positive side, he’s proposed a good package of tax cuts. And he’s…….ummm……..errrr……well……(scratch head)……

Actually, in terms of specifics rather than rhetoric, the tax cut is about the only market-oriented policy he’s embraced.

On the negative side, he’s a big fan of protectionism, and that’s definitely not a recipe for prosperity. And he’s rejected much-need reforms to entitlement programs, which therefore makes his big tax cut totally unrealistic.

But mostly it’s impossible to know what he really thinks for the simple reason that he probably doesn’t have deep thoughts about public policy (look at his flailing response to the question of debt). Even when he’s been specific, does anyone think he’s philosophically committed to what he has said while campaigning?

So my assessment, as explained in this interview with Neil Cavuto, is that Trump is a grenade that will explode in an unpredictable fashion.

So if you’re a libertarian and you choose to vote for Trump, just be forewarned that you’ll probably be standing next to the grenade when it explodes.

So what about the alternative? Is there a libertarian argument for Hillary Clinton (other than the fact that she’s not Trump)? Can a politician who has spent decades promoting cronyism and redistributionism actually deliver good policy?

Her husband actually did a good job when he was in the White House, but you can probably sense from this debate with Juan Williams on the Stossel show, I’m not overflowing with optimism that she also would preside over a shift to better policy.

Here are a few additional thoughts on my debate with Juan.

Keynesian economics doesn’t work, either in theory or in reality. And it’s laughable that the excuse for Keynesian failure is always that politicians should have spent more money.

Entitlements will cripple America’s economy if left on auto-pilot. I’ve repeatedly made the point that we’re like Greece 10 or 15 years ago. By claiming at the time that there was no crisis, Greek politicians ensured that a crisis eventually would occur. The same thing is happening here.

I’m skeptical about the claim that climate change is a crisis, but a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the most sensible approach if action genuinely is required. But the left prefers sure-to-fail (but very lucrative to cronies) industrial policy.

Government can help create conditions for prosperity by providing core public goods like rule of law, but that only requires a very small public sector, not the bloated Leviathans that exist today.

I’d be delighted to have a woman as President if she had the same principles and judgement as Margaret Thatcher. To be colloquial, that ain’t a description of Hillary Clinton.

Last but not least, I was rhetorically correct but technically wrong about welfare dependency in Hong Kong. I said fewer than 3 percent of Hong Kong residents get public assistance when I should have said that Hong Kong spends less than 3 percent of GDP on redistribution. That’s an amazingly small welfare state, but it does ensnare about 5.5 percent of the population. Which if far lower than the share of the population getting handouts in America, so my point was still very much correct.

Not that any of this matters in the short run since there’s a 99.9 percent probability that America’s next President will be perfectly content to let the country sink further into the swamp of statism.

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I have a collection of columns about “honest leftists” and they mostly fall into two categories.

One group is comprised of people who are willing to admit that the statist policies they generally prefer have bad effects (such as gun control encouraging crime or welfare leading to more dependency).

The other group is much more dogmatic. They get credit for honesty only because they are publicly willing to admit views that most leftists try to keep hidden (such as thinking that all our income belongs to government or celebrating the role of coercion).

I also have a separate collection of statists who are honest enough to admit that their real goal is higher taxes on the middle class (mostly by imposing a value-added tax).

Now I’ve come across something that initially seemed a good fit for one of these collections since it deals with honesty.

But it doesn’t belong in any of the categories described above. So it’s time to create a new award for “Politician of the Year,” an honor that periodically will be bestowed on the elected official who goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Based on this blurb from a Wall Street Journal editorial, I think you’ll agree that the newly elected President of the Philippines deserves to win this award for a very unusual display of honesty.

Mr. Duterte gets credit for…claiming that he never gives public funds to his mistresses.

Wow, he’s openly admitting that he has mistresses (more than one, obviously), which is uncharacteristically honest for a politician.

And he’s not even using taxpayer money to subsidize his extracurricular activities with those “friends.” Assuming that’s true, kudos to President-Elect Duterte. Maybe he can give some lessons to the crowd in Washington.

By the way, we may also have a good idea of the politician who deserves the 2017 Award.

Though we don’t actually know his name because he’s written an anonymous book on what really happens behind closed doors in Washington. The U.K.-based Daily Mail has a report on this soon-to-be-released tell-all book.

A new book threatens to blow the lid off of Congress as a federal legislator’s tell-all book lays out the worst parts of serving in the House of Representatives – saying that his main job is to raise money for re-election and that leaves little time for reading the bills he votes on. …Washington is abuzz with speculation about who may be behind it. The book…discloses that the congressman is a Democrat – but not much else. …Much of what’s in the book will come as little surprise to Americans who are cynical about the political process. ‘Fundraising is so time-consuming I seldom read any bills I vote on,’ the anonymous legislator admits. ‘I don’t even know how they’ll be implemented or what they’ll cost.’ …And on controversial bills, he says, ‘I sometimes vote “yes” on a motion and “no” on an amendment so I can claim I’m on either side of an issue.’

The book will reveal how politicians indirectly line their own pockets.

…he seemingly takes a shot at the Bill and Hillary Clinton Foundation, noting how family philanthropies can be the beneficiaries of what amounts to bribes in exchange for legislative favors. ‘Some contributions are subtle,’ he explains. ‘Donations to a member’s nonprofit foundation. Funding a member’s charitable pet project. Offsetting the costs of a member’s portrait to adorn the committee room.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that politicians are shallow, corrupt, and hypocritical.

The mystery man reserves special scorn for Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who serves as Senate Minority Leader. …One chapter is titled ‘Harry Reid’s a Pompous A**. …The larger picture that emerges is one of disenchantment with the political process and the professional office-holders behind it. Especially those in the Democratic Party. ‘Our party used to be a strong advocate for the working class,’ he says. ‘We still pretend to be, but we aren’t. Large corporations and public unions grease the palms of those who have the power to determine legislative winners and losers.’ ‘Most of my colleagues want to help the poor and disadvantaged. To a point,’ he adds. ‘We certainly don’t want to live among them. Or mingle with them, unless it’s for a soup kitchen photo op. … Poverty’s a great concern as long as it’s kept at a safe distance.’ …’I’m concerned my party has an activist far-left wing intolerant of center-leftists. …He cites education policy as an example: ‘I’m a strong advocate of improving our public schools. I also see the near-term value of vouchers and charter schools committed to lending a helping hand to disadvantaged kids. Especially inner-city kids.’ ‘Hell, most of us send our children to private schools and wouldn’t be caught dead sending them to public schools in places like DC.

That last section is really disgusting. Politicians will sacrifice other people’s children to appease the teacher unions, but they have the money to exercise school choice for their own kids.

So what’s the bottom line?

The mystery Democratic Congressman paints a grim picture.

‘Most of my colleagues are dishonest career politicians who revel in the power and special-interest money that’s lavished upon them,’ Atkinson recorded his mystery collaborator saying. ‘My main job is to keep my job, to get reelected. It takes precedence over everything.’ …the take-away message is one of resigned depression about how Congress sacrifices America’s future on the altar of its collective ego. ‘We spend money we don’t have and blithely mortgage the future with a wink and a nod. Screw the next generation,’ the author writes. ‘Nobody here gives a rat’s a** about the future and who’s going to pay for all this stuff we vote for. That’s the next generation’s problem. It’s all about immediate publicity, getting credit now, lookin’ good for the upcoming election.’

In other words, he’s describing what academics refer to as “public choice economics,” which is simply the common-sense observation that politicians are most interested in maximizing power and money for themselves.

P.S. If we can give a retroactive award for Politician of the Year, the winner would be the state legislator mentioned in the postscript to this column. Bribery, prison, and potential statutory rape are a potent combination.

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I have no idea whether Donald Trump believes in bigger government or smaller government. Higher taxes or lower taxes. More intervention or less. Sometimes he says things I like. Sometimes he says things that irk me.

Politicians are infamous for being cagey, but “The Donald” is an entirely different animal. Instead of using weasel words that create wiggle room, he simply makes bold statements that are impossible to reconcile.

Consider his views on government debt.

Here’s an interview with Dana Loesch of Blaze TV from earlier this week. I was in Zurich and it was past midnight, so I was a tad bit undiplomatic about Trump’s endlessly evolving views. Simply stated, it’s not a good idea to default. And it’s not a good idea to monetize debt either.

For what it’s worth, while Trump is oscillating between different position on debt, one of his top advisers is claiming that his plan will produce a multi-trillion dollar surplus.

Sigh.

The sensible approach would be for Trump to make simple points.

  1. Debt is a symptom and the real problem is too much spending.
  2. The solution is to follow the Golden Rule.
  3. Therefore, impose a Swiss-style spending cap.

But he hasn’t asked me for advice, so I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to say the right thing.

It’s also a challenge to decipher Trump’s position on tax policy.

He actually put forth a good tax proposal, but nobody takes it seriously since he doesn’t have a concomitant plan to restrain spending.

So his campaign supposedly designated Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore to modify the plan, but then said the original proposal would stay unchanged.

This does not create a sense of confidence.

Trump also is getting pressure on his personal tax situation. He said he would release his tax return(s). Now he says he won’t. I speculated on what this implies in an essay for Time, listing five reasons why he may decide to keep his returns confidential.

The first two reasons deal with a desire for privacy and a political concern that he may appear to be less wealthy than he’s led folks to believe.

First, he may resent the idea of letting the world look at his tax returns for reasons of personal privacy, which is an understandable sentiment. …Can Trump get away with stonewalling on his returns? Perhaps. President Barack Obama refused to release his college transcript and didn’t seem to suffer any political damage. …Second, Trump’s tax return will probably show a surprisingly low level of income, and he might be concerned that such a revelation would erode the super-successful-billionaire aura that he has created.

I also suspect he’s worried that his tax return will make him look like…gasp…a tax avoider.

Third, to the degree that Trump’s return shows a lower-than-expected amount of taxable income, this will probably be because his accountants and tax lawyers have carefully plumbed the 75,000-page internal revenue code for deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions and other preferences… Since we all seek to legally minimize our tax liabilities, that shouldn’t be a political problem. …That normally would be a persuasive answer, but voters may look askance when they learn that Trump is taking advantage of mysterious provisions dealing with things they don’t understand, like depreciation, carryforwards, foreign tax credits, muni bonds and deferral. …Fourth, for very wealthy individuals and large companies, the complexity of the tax code means there’s no way of knowing if a tax return is accurate. …Given Trump’s persona, he presumably pushes the envelope.

Last but not least, I imagine Trump has “offshore” structures.

Fifth, it’s highly likely that Trump does business with so-called tax havens. For successful investors and entrepreneurs with cross-border economic activity, this is almost obligatory because jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands have ideal combinations of quality governance and tax neutrality. …But in a political environment where the left has tried to demonize “offshore” tax planning, any revelations about BVI companies, Panama law firms, Jersey trusts and Liechtenstein accounts will be fodder for Trump’s many enemies.

Needless to say, I greatly sympathize with Trump’s desire to minimize his tax burden and I applaud his use of so-called tax havens (which are routinely utilized by wealthy Democrats).

And I even sympathize with his desire for privacy even though divulging personal financial information is now a routine obligation for politicians.

The point I should have made in my essay is that Trump would be in a stronger position if he said from the start that his tax returns are nobody else’s business.

And shifting back to policy, he’ll be in a stronger position if he picks a message and sticks to it (though ideally not the same message as Hillary Clinton).

P.S. Since I mentioned Obama’s still-secret college transcript, I may as well share this very clever mock transcript that explains a lot about his misguided approach to policy.

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Does Donald Trump have a consistent and coherent set of economic policies?

He sometimes says things indicating that he understands Washington is a cesspool of waste. But on other occasions, he seems to be singing off the same song sheet as Bernie Sanders.

Which is why, when I recently tried to dissect Trumponomics, I admitted to being clueless.

The honest answer is that I don’t know. He has put forth a giant tax cut that is reasonably well designed, so that implies more prosperity, but is he serious about the plan? And does he have a plan for the concomitant spending reforms needed to make his tax proposal viable? He also has lots of protectionist rhetoric, including a proposal for a 45 percent tax on Chinese products, which implies harmful dislocation to the American economy. Is he actually serious about risking a global trade war, or is his saber rattling just a negotiating tool, as some of his defenders claim?

For what it’s worth, I’m getting more skeptical that Trump would try to restrain and limit the federal government if he got elected.

And I have three recent news reports to underscore my concern.

Here’s a very disturbing example. Trump actually criticized Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin for not raising taxes. Here’s an excerpt from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

Donald Trump attacked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for failing to raise taxes in order to properly fund schools and roads on Tuesday, in a startling new break from rightwing orthodoxy… “There’s a $2.2bn deficit and the schools were going begging and everything was going begging because he didn’t want to raise taxes ’cause he was going to run for president,” said Trump. “So instead of raising taxes, he cut back on schools, he cut back on highways, he cut back on a lot of things.”

To dig deeper into the issue, Governor Walker had just endorsed Ted Cruz, so I can understand why Trump would try to take a few shots at someone who is supporting a rival for the GOP nomination.

But attacking the Wisconsin governor for successfully balancing his state’s budget without a tax hike? Sounds more like something Hillary would say. Maybe it’s time to induct Trump into the Charlie Brown Club.

Trump also doesn’t like federalism. Assuming he even knows what it is. In his column for the Washington Post, Professor Jonathan Adler shares some Q&A from a recent CNN interview with Trump.

QUESTION:  In your opinion, what are the top three functions of the United States government?

TRUMP:  Well, the greatest function of all by far is security for our nation.  I would also say health care, I would also say education.

This doesn’t sound like a candidate who wants to reduce the federal government’s footprint.

Here’s more of the interview.

COOPER:  So in terms of federal government role, you’re saying security, but you also say health care and education should be provided by the federal government?

TRUMP:  Well, those are two of the things.  Yes, sure.  I mean, there are obviously many things, housing, providing great neighborhoods…

Huh, providing “great neighborhoods” is now a legitimate function of the federal government?!? I guess if Washington gets to be involved with underwear, neighborhood policy is just fine.

And why is he talking about education when the goal should be to eliminate the Department of Education?

To be fair, Trump also said in the interview that he wants to get rid of Common Core.  So it’s unclear what he actually envisions.

His answer on healthcare is similarly hazy.

COOPER:  And federal health care run by the federal government?

TRUMP:  Health care – we need health care for our people.  We need a good – Obamacare is a disaster.  It’s proven to be…

COOPER:  But is that something the federal government should be doing?

TRUMP:  The government can lead it.

So he wants the federal government involved, but he also thinks Obamacare is a “disaster.” I certainly agree about the Obamacare part, but once again we’re left with no idea whether a President Trump would make good reforms of bad reforms (i.e., would he move the “health care freedom meter” in the right direction or wrong direction?).

One thing that is clear, however, is that Trump doesn’t seem to have any core principles about the size and scope of the federal government.

He may not even realize that federalism is a key issue for advocates of limited and constitutional government.

Last but not least, Trump criticized Senator Cruz for the partial government shutdown fight that occurred in 2013. Here are some passages from a report by Byron York in the Washington Examiner.

When Trump did get around to Cruz, his critique focused…on the 2013 partial government shutdown. …He goes and he stands on the floor of the Senate for a day and a half and he filibusters …. To stand there and to rant and rave for two days and to show people you can filibuster — and in the meantime, nothing was accomplished.

I guess this isn’t an issue of underlying principles, but it does give us some idea of whether a President Trump would be willing to fight the Washington establishment.

Moreover, his assessment of the shutdown fight is completely wrong. By reminding voters that Republicans were opposed to Obamacare, the GOP won a landslide victory in 2014.

But you don’t have to believe me. Even an ultra-establishment, anti-Cruz figure like Trent Lott (former senator and now lobbyist) grudgingly admits that the shutdown was a success.

Cruz views the shutdown as a victory because the Affordable Care Act remains unpopular and Republicans swept to victory in 2014. Lott said…“That was their strategy, and it worked, so maybe they’re right and I’m wrong.”

The bottom line is that America is heading in the wrong direction, with Washington projected to consume ever-larger amounts of the economy’s output. This is a recipe for continued economic weakness in the short run and economic crisis in the long run.

Turning policy in the right direction requires a principled President who is fully committed to overcoming resistance from the special interests that dominate Washington’s culture.

I still don’t pretend to know where Donald Trump is on the big issues, but I’m not holding my breath for good results if he somehow gets elected.

P.S. Though I do expect more examples of clever political humor the longer he’s in the public eye.

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At this stage, it’s quite likely that Donald Trump will be the Republican presidential nominee. Conventional wisdom suggests that this means Democrats will win in November. On the other hand, conventional wisdom also told us that Trump would never get this far.  So it’s unclear what will happen in the general election, particularly given the ethical cloud surrounding the presumptive Democratic nominee.

So let’s contemplate what a potential Trump Administration would mean for economic liberty and American prosperity. Would the United States become more like Hong Kong, with a smaller burden of government and less intervention? Or more like France, with higher taxes and spending, along with additional cronyism and red tape?

The honest answer is that I don’t know. He has put forth a giant tax cut that is reasonably well designed, so that implies more prosperity, but is he serious about the plan? And does he have a plan for the concomitant spending reforms needed to make his tax proposal viable?

He also has lots of protectionist rhetoric, including a proposal for a 45 percent tax on Chinese products, which implies harmful dislocation to the American economy. Is he actually serious about risking a global trade war, or is his saber rattling just a negotiating tool, as some of his defenders claim?

And what about entitlement programs, which arguably represent the greatest long-term threat to America’s economy? Trump certainly gives the impression that he thinks Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid don’t need to be reformed. Is he really serious when he makes this claim?

If we take what he says seriously, Trump is more statist than every Republican who sought the GOP nomination but less statist than both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Though I confess I’m basing that opinion solely on whether I agreed with the candidates, as measured by the I-Side-With political quiz.

So let’s see what others have to say.

My colleague David Boaz, writing for National Review, is not impressed.

Without even getting into his past support for a massive wealth tax and single-payer health care, his know-nothing protectionism, or his passionate defense of eminent domain, I think we can say that this is a Republican campaign that would have appalled Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan.

Speaking of National Review, Kevin Williamson argues that Trump represents the worst of cronyism.

The Tea Party’s fundamental complaint, which was the same complaint put forward by Occupy Wall Street minus the Maoist daydreaming, is that there exists a corrosive and distasteful relationship between certain politically connected businesses and the politicians who are both their patrons and their clients. Donald Trump is the face of that insalubrious relationship, a lifelong crony capitalist who brags about buying political favors.

Last but not least, my former UGA economics professor Paul Rubin (now at Emory), in a column for the Wall Street Journal, explains that Trump (and Sanders) incorrectly thinks the economy is a fixed pie.

Messrs. Trump and Sanders have been led astray by zero-sum thinking, or the assumption that economic magnitudes are fixed when they are in fact variable. If the world is zero-sum, then the number of jobs is fixed, as is gross domestic product. In Mr. Trump’s mind, if there are more Mexican workers in the U.S., then American workers must lose their jobs. In the real, positive-sum world where Mr. Trump doesn’t live, Mexican workers also consume, thus increasing GDP and creating new jobs. …Similar arguments apply to Mr. Trump’s analysis of Chinese imports. In a world of fixed GDP and prices, imports of goods from China merely replace goods that otherwise would have been produced by American workers. In the real world, imports reduce prices and increase GDP, so workers, who are also consumers, benefit from imports of lower-cost goods and increase their consumption of other goods. …Zero-sum thinking persists because it is superficially appealing. Mr. Trump’s policies would in theory benefit Americans and increase jobs. …In the actual, positive-sum world we live in, their policies…would, if adopted, lead to an economic depression that would make the 1930s look prosperous.

I actually think Prof. Rubin overstates his conclusion. It took a lot of truly awful policies by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt to produce the Great Depression.

Barack Obama didn’t come close to Hoover and Roosevelt with his bad policies and I suspect even the bad version of Donald Trump would (thankfully) fall short as well.

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