Archive for the ‘Rankings’ Category

A few days ago, using several methodologies, I calculated how fast government spending increased during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

One of my big takeaways was that Republican presidents – with the exception of Reagan – allowed the burden of government spending to increase far too rapidly. Oftentimes faster than budgets grew under Democratic presidents.

That column generated a lot of feedback. And whether the responses were positive or negative, a common theme was that presidents shouldn’t be judged solely based on the growth of federal spending – both because Congress plays a big role and because there are many other policies that also matter when assessing economic policy.

I fully agree, and I explicitly noted that the relatively good spending numbers during the Obama years were because of policies – sequestration, shutdowns, etc – he opposed.

And I also concur that other policies matter. That’s one of the reasons I’m always highlighting Economic Freedom of the World. Yes, fiscal policy is one of the variables, but monetary policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, and the rule of law are equally important.

Indeed, I did an overall assessment of Bill Clinton a few years ago, comparing the pro-growth polices that were adopted during his tenure with the anti-growth policies that were implemented.

The bottom line is that economic liberty increased during his presidency. Significantly. Others can debate about whether he deserves full credit, partial credit, or no credit, but what matters to me is that the overall burden of government shrank. And that was good for America.

It’s time to do an overall assessment of economic policy for other presidents. And we’ll start with one of America’s worst presidents, Richard Nixon.

He’s mostly infamous for Watergate, which led to his resignation, but he also should be scorned because every single major economic policy of his presidency expanded the size, scope, and power of the federal government. Here’s the list, with a couple of the items getting larger bars because the policies were so misguided.

Is it true that there were no good economic policies under Richard Nixon? I asked Art Laffer, who worked at the Office of Management and Budget at the time, whether there were any pro-market reforms during the Nixon years.

He mentioned that the top tax rate on labor and small business income was reduced from 70 percent to 50 percent as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1969. I would have included that law in the pro-growth column, except that was the legislation that also created the alternative minimum tax (for both households and corporations). And there was an increases in the tax burden on capital gains, as well as a more onerous tax regime for new investment. My assessment is that these bad provisions basically offset the lower tax rate.

For what it’s worth, Nixon also proposed a value-added tax, which is yet another piece of evidence that he was a terrible statist. But I only include policies that were enacted rather than merely proposed (if I did include proposed policies, Bill Clinton would take a hit for Hillarycare).

P.S. I’m open to revising this list. I probably missed some policies, perhaps even a good one. And maybe I’m overstating the negative impact of spending increases and price controls, or understating the bad consequences of other policies. Feel free to add your two cents in the comments section.

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A new annual edition of Economic Freedom of the World has been released.

The first thing that everyone wants to know is how various nations are ranked.

Let’s start at the bottom. I can’t imagine that anybody will be surprised to learn that Venezuela is in last place, though we don’t know for sure the worse place in the world since the socialist hellholes of Cuba and North Korea weren’t included because of a lack of acceptable data.

At the other end, Hong Kong is in first place, where it’s been ranked for decades, followed by Singapore, which also have been highly ranked for a long time. Interestingly, the gap between those two jurisdictions is shrinking, so it will be interesting to see if Singapore grabs the top spot next year.

New Zealand and Switzerland are #3 and #4, respectively, retaining their lofty rankings from last year.

The biggest news is that Canada plunged. It was #5 last year, but now is tied for #11. And I can’t help but worry what will happen in the future given the leftist orientation of the nation’s current Prime Minister.

Another notable development is that the United Kingdom jumped four spots, from #10 to #6. If that type of movement continues, the U.K. definitely will prosper in a post-Brexit world.

And if we venture outside the top 10, I can’t help but feel happy that the United States rose from #16 to #11. And America’s ranking didn’t jump merely because other nation’s adopted bad policy. The U.S. score increased from 7.75 in last year’s report to 7.94 in this year’s release.

A few other things that grabbed my attention are the relatively high scores for all the Baltic nations, the top-20 rankings for Denmark and Finland, and Chile‘s good (but declining) score.

Let’s take a look at four fascinating charts from the report.

We’ll start with a closer look at the United States. As you can see from this chart, the United States enjoyed a gradual increase in economic freedom during the 1980s and 1990s, followed by a gradual decline during most of the Bush-Obama years. But in the past couple of years (hopefully the beginning of a trend), the U.S. score has improved.

Now let’s shift to the post-communist world.

What’s remarkable about nations from the post-Soviet Bloc is that you have some big success stories and some big failures.

I already mentioned that the Baltic nations get good scores, but Georgia and Romania deserve attention as well.

But other nations – most notably Ukraine and Russia – remain economically oppressed.

Our next chart shows long-run developments in the scores of developed and developing nations.

Both sets of countries benefited from economic liberalization in the 19890s and 1990s. But the 21st century has – on average – been a period of policy stagnation.

Last but not least, let’s look at the nations that have enjoyed the biggest increases and suffered the biggest drops since 2000.

A bunch of post-communist nations are in the group that enjoyed the biggest increases in economic liberty. It’s also good to see that Rwanda’s score has jumped so much.

I’m unhappy, by contrast, so see the United States on the list of nations that experienced the largest reductions in economic liberty since the turn of the century.

Greece’s big fall, however, is not surprising. And neither are the astounding declines for Argentina and Venezuela (Argentina improved quite a bit in this year’s edition, so hopefully that’s a sign that the country is beginning to recover from the horrid statism of the Kirchner era).

Let’s close with a reminder that Economic Freedom of the World uses dozens of variables to create scores in five major categories (fiscal, regulatory, trade, monetary, and rule of law). These five scores are then combined to produce a score for each country, just as grades in five classes might get combined to produce a student’s grade point average.

This has important implications because getting a really good score in one category won’t produce strong economic results if there are bad scores in the other four categories. Likewise, a bad score in one category isn’t a death knell if a nation does really well in the other four categories.

As a fiscal policy wonk, I always try to remind myself not to have tunnel vision. There are nations that may get good scores on fiscal policy, but get a bad overall score because of poor performance in non-fiscal variables (Lebanon, for instance). Similarly, there are nations that get rotten scores on fiscal policy, yet are ranked highly because they are very market-oriented in the other four variables (Denmark and Finland, for example).

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I don’t know if Dr. Seuss would appreciate my title, which borrows from his children’s classic.

But given how I enjoy comparative rankings, I couldn’t help myself after perusing a new study from WalletHub that ranks states on their independence (or lack thereof).

Being a policy wonk, what really caught my attention was the section on government dependency, which is based on four criteria.

As you can see, the four factors are not weighted equally. The “federally dependent states” variable is considered four times as important as any of the other variables.

That’s important, to be sure, but is it really more important (or that much more important) than the other categories?

Moreover, I’m not sure the “tax freedom day” variable is a measure of dependency. What’s really captured by this variable, given the way the tax code doesn’t tax low-income people and over-taxes high-income people, is the degree to which state have lots of rich people or poor people. But that’s not a measure of dependence (particularly if the rich people stole money instead of earning it).

But I’m quibbling. I might put together a different formula with some different variables, but WalletHub has done something very interesting.

And if we look at their 25 least-dependent states, you see a very interesting pattern. Of the 10-most independent states, only three of them are Trump-voting red states (Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah).

The other seven are blue states. And some of them – such as Illinois, New Jersey, and California – are dark blue states.

And the #11 and #12 states also were Hillary states as well.

Which raises an interesting question. Why are voters in those states in favor of big government when they don’t disproportionately benefit from handouts?

Are they culturally left-wing, putting social issues above economic issues?

Or are they motivated by some issue involving foreign policy and/or defense?

Or maybe masochistic?

Beats me.

By the way, the WalletHub email announcing the report included a very interesting factoid that may explain why Hillary lost Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has the lowest percentage of government workers (local, state and federal), at 10.8 percent. Alaska has the nation’s highest percentage, at 25.1 percent.

Though I can’t see those details in the actual report, which is disappointing. I’d like to see a ranking of the states based solely on the number-of-bureaucrats criteria (we have data comparing countries, for those interested).

Now let’s shift to the states that have the highest levels of dependency.

If you look at the bottom of the final image, you’ll notice that it’s a reverse of the top-10. Seven of the most-dependent states are red states that voted for Trump.

Only New Mexico, Oregon, and Maine supported Hillary (and Trump actually won one-fourth of Maine’s electoral votes).

So this raises a separate question. Are red state people voting against their interests? Should they be voting for politicians who will further expand the size and scope of government so they can get even more goodies from Uncle Sam?

For what it’s worth, a leftist actually wrote a book entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas, which examined why the people of the Sunflower State weren’t voting for statism.

Well, part of the answer may be that Kansas is one of the most independent states, so perhaps the author should have picked another example.

But even if he had selected Mississippi (#49), I suspected the answer is that low-income people don’t necessarily think that it’s morally right to steal money from other states, even if the loot is laundered through Washington.

In other words, people is those states still have social capital or cultural capital.

It’s also possible, of course, that voters in red states with lots of dependency (at least as measured by WalletHub) are instead motivated by cultural issues or foreign policy issues.

There’s even a very interesting study from Professor Alesina at Harvard, which finds that ethnically diverse jurisdictions can be more hostile to redistribution (and homogeneous societies like the Nordic nations are more supportive of a large welfare state).

And since many of the red states at the bottom of the rankings also happen to be states with large minority populations, perhaps that’s a partial explanation.

Though California has a very large minority population as well, yet it routinely votes for more redistribution.

The bottom line is that we probably can’t draw any sweeping conclusions from this data.

Though it leaves me even more convinced that the best approach is to eliminate all DC-based redistribution and let states decide how much to tax and how much to spend. In other words, federalism.

P.S. I put together my own ranking of state dependency, based on a formula involving welfare usage and poverty. Vermont was the worst state and Nevada was the best state.

P.P.S. I also shared calculations based solely on the share of eligible people who signed up for food stamps. Interestingly, Californians rank as the most self-reliant. Maybe my predictions of long-run doom for that state are a bit exaggerated.

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Earlier today, I gave a speech about populism and capitalism at the Free Market Road Show in Thessaloniki, Greece.

But I’m not writing about my speech (read this and this if you want to get an idea of what I said about American policy under Trump). Instead, I want to share some remarkable data from a presentation by Ewa Balcerowicz of Poland’s Center for Social and Economic Research.

She talked about “The Post Socialist Transition in Poland in a Comparative Perspective” and showed that Poland and Spain has similar living standards after World War II. But over the next 40 years, thanks to the brutal communist system imposed by the Soviet Union, Poland fell far behind.

But look what has happened over the past 25 years.

Per-capita GDP has skyrocketed in Poland and the gap between the two nations has dramatically narrowed.

So why is Poland now rising relative to Spain?

For the simple reason that public policy has moved in the right direction. Here’s the data from Economic Freedom of the World, comparing Poland’s score in 1990 and today. Poland has jumped from 3.54 to 7.42, and the nation has jumped from a dismal ranking of #104 to a respectable ranking of #40.

By the way, Spain’s score also has increased, but by a much smaller amount. And because the world has become more free, Spain’s ranking has dropped. Indeed, Spain now ranks below Poland

Which means that we shouldn’t be surprised if per-capita GDP in Poland soon jumps about Spanish levels.

Just as Poland has out-paced Ukraine because it has better policy.

Here are additional examples showing the long-run benefits of pro-market policy.

And here’s a must-watch video on the relationship between good policy and better economics performance.

All of which helps to explain why I’m so disappointed in both Bush and Obama. Their statist policies have caused a drop in America’s score and relative ranking.

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I wrote yesterday about the most recent OECD numbers on “Average Individual Consumption” in member nations.

There was a very clear lesson in that data about the dangers of excessive government. The United States was at the top in this measure of household living standards, not because American policies are great, but rather because huge welfare states in Europe have undermined economic vitality on the other side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, the only countries even remotely close to the United States were oil-rich Norway and the two tax havens of Switzerland and Luxembourg.

Those AIC numbers gave us an interesting snapshot of relative living standards in 2014.

But what would we discover if we looked at how that data has changed over time?

It appears that the OECD began assembling that data back in 2002. Here’s a table showing how nations rose or fell, relative to other OECD nations, since then. Based on convergence theory, one would expect to see that poorer nations enjoyed the biggest relative gains, while richer nations fell in the rankings. And that is what generally happened, but with some notable exceptions.

Here are the countries that did not conform, for either good reasons or bad reasons, to convergence theory.

We’ll start with the nations that have bragging rights.

  • Chile started at the very bottom compared to the rich nations of the western world, so anything other than a large increase would have been a disappointment. But the magnitude of Chile’s increase is nonetheless quite impressive and presumably a testament to pro-market reforms.
  • Finland was almost 7 points below the OECD average in 2002 and now is more than 2 points above the average, which is a significant jump for a nation near the middle of the pack. Maybe having sensible leaders is a good idea.
  • Oil-rich Norway was above average at the start of the period and even farther above average at the end of the period.
  • The United States was very high in 2002 and remained very high in 2014. Since that outcome violates convergence theory, that’s a non-trivial accomplishment and another piece of evidence that big governments in Europe are imposing a harsh economic cost.
  • Switzerland also started high and remained high. That’s presumably a reflection of good policies such as federalism and spending restraint.

Now for the nations that did not fare well.

  • Luxembourg suffered a large drop, some of which is understandable since the tiny tax haven was in first place back in 2002. But the magnitude of the decline – particularly compared to the United States and Switzerland – is not an encouraging sign. This may be a sign that anti-tax competition efforts by the OECD have hit the nation hard.
  • Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Italy all tumbled in the rankings even though – at best – they started in the middle of the pack. It will be interesting to see how these nations perform as they recover (or don’t recover, as I expect in the cases of Italy and Greece) from the European fiscal crisis.
  • Slovenia also went from bad to worse, which perhaps is not a big surprise since it is one of the least reform-oriented countries to emerge from the Soviet Bloc.
  • The United Kingdom suffered a rather large decline, almost all of which happened under the profligate Blair and Brown Labour governments. This will be another nation that will be interesting to watch in coming years, particularly because of Brexit.
  • France and the Netherlands also suffered, starting well above average in 2002 but falling to the mean in 2014.

If you like this kind of data on whether nations are trending in the right direction or wrong direction, I’ve also tinkered with the data from Economic Freedom of the World.

Last year, I highlighted countries that have made significant moves in the EFW rankings, including oft-overlooked success stories such as Israel and New Zealand.

I also looked specifically at changes in Europe this century and did not find any reason for optimism.

The bottom line is that there’s no substitute for free markets and limited government. If nations want faster growth and more prosperity, they need to mimic jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

Unfortunately, there’s very little reason to be optimistic about that happening in Europe.

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Back in 2014, I shared some data from the Tax Foundation that measured the degree to which various developed nations punished high-income earners.

This measure of relative “progressivity” focused on personal income taxes. And that’s important because that levy often is the most onerous for highly productive residents of a nation.

But there are other taxes that also create a gap between what such taxpayers earn and produce and what they ultimately are able to consume and enjoy. What about the effects of payroll taxes? Of consumption taxes and other levies?

To answer that question, we have a very useful study from the European Policy Information Center on this topic. Authored by Alexander Fritz Englund and Jacob Lundberg, it looks at the total marginal tax rate on each nation’s most productive taxpayers.

They start with some sensible observations about why marginal tax rates matter, basically echoing what I wrote after last year’s Super Bowl.

Here’s what Englund and Lundberg wrote.

The marginal tax rate is the proportion of tax paid on the last euro earned. It is the relevant tax rate when deciding whether to work a few extra hours or accept a promotion, for example. As most income tax systems are progressive, the marginal tax rate on top incomes is usually also the highest marginal tax rate. It is an indicator of how progressive and distortionary the income tax is.

They then explain why they include payroll taxes in their calculations.

The income tax alone does not provide a complete picture of how the tax system affects incentives to work and earn income. Many countries require employers and/or employees to pay social contributions. It is not uncommon for the associated benefits to be capped while the contribution itself is uncapped, meaning it is a de facto tax for high-income earners. Even those social contributions that are legally paid by the employer will in the end be paid by the employee as the employer should be expected to shift the burden of the tax through lower gross wages.

Englund and Lunberg are correct. A payroll tax (sometimes called a “social insurance” levy) will be just as destructive as a regular income tax if workers aren’t “earning” some sort of additional benefit. And they’re also right when they point out that payroll taxes “paid” by employers actually are borne by workers.

They then explain why they include a measure of consumption taxation.

One must also take value-added taxes and other consumption taxes into account. Consumption taxes reduce the purchasing power of wage-earners and thus affect the return to working. In principle, it does not matter whether taxation takes place when income is earned or when it is consumed, as the ultimate purpose of work is consumption.

Once again, the authors are spot on. Taxes undermine incentives to be productive by driving a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption, so you have to look at levies that grab your income as it is earned as well as levies that grab your income as it is spent.

And when you begin to add everything together, you get the most accurate measure of government greed.

Taking all these taxes into account, one can compute the effective marginal tax rate. This shows how many cents the government receives for every euro of additional employee compensation paid by the firm. …If the top effective tax rate is 75 percent, as in Sweden, a person who contributes 100 additional euros to the economy will only be allowed to keep 25 euros while 75 euros are appropriated by the government. The tax system thus drives a wedge between the social and private return to work. …High marginal tax rates disconnect the private and social returns to economic activity and thereby the invisible hand ceases to function. For this reason, taxation causes distortions and is costly to society. High marginal tax rates make it less worthwhile to supply labour on the formal labour market and more worthwhile to spend time on household work, black market activities and tax avoidance.

Here’s their data for various developed nation.

Keep in mind that these are the taxes that impact each nation’s most productive taxpayers. So that includes top income tax rates, both for the central governments and sub-national governments, as well as surtaxes. It includes various social insurance levies, to the extent such taxes apply to all income. And it includes a measure of estimated consumption taxation.

And here’s the ranking of all the nations. Shed a tear for entrepreneurs in Sweden, Belgium, and Portugal.

Slovakia wins the prize for the least-punitive tax regime, though it’s worth noting that Hong Kong easily would have the best system if it was included in the ranking.

For what it’s worth, the United States does fairly well compared to other nations. This is not because our personal income tax is reasonable (see dark blue bars), but rather because Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were unsuccessful in their efforts to bust the “wage base cap” and apply the Social Security payroll tax on all income. We also thankfully don’t have a value-added tax. These factors explain why our medium-blue and light-blue bars are the smallest.

By the way, this doesn’t mean we have a friendly system for upper-income taxpayers in America. They lose almost half of every dollar they generate for the economy. And whether one is looking at Tax Foundation numbers, Congressional Budget Office calculations, information from the New York Times, or data from the IRS, rich people in the United States are paying a hugely disproportionate share of the tax burden.

Though none of this satisfies the statists. They actually would like us to think that letting well-to-do taxpayers keep any of their money is akin to a handout.

Now would be an appropriate time to remind everyone that imposing high tax rates doesn’t necessarily mean collecting high tax revenues.

In the 1980s, for instance, upper-income taxpayers paid far more revenue to the government when Reagan lowered the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

Also keep in mind that these calculations don’t measure the tax bias against saving and investment, so the tax burden on some upper-income taxpayers may be higher or lower depending on the degree to which countries penalize capital formation.

P.S. If one includes the perverse incentive effects of various redistribution programs, the very highest marginal tax rates (at least when measuring implicit rates) sometimes apply to a nation’s poor people.

P.P.S. Our statist friends sometimes justify punitive taxes as a way of using coercion to produce more equality, but the net effect of such policies is weaker growth and that means it is more difficult for lower-income and middle-income people to climb the economic ladder. In other words, unfettered markets are the best way to get social mobility.

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For data-loving policy wonks, the World Bank’s Doing Business report is a fascinating look at the degree to which nations have a policy and governance environment that is conducive to economic activity.

Unlike Economic Freedom of the World, it’s not designed to measure whether a jurisdiction has small government. Doing Business is probably best described as measuring quality of governance and whether a nation has sensible business policy.

That being said, there’s a lot of overlap between the rankings of the two publications. Indeed, you’ll notice many free-market countries in the top 20 of Doing Business, led by the “unsung success story” of New Zealand, followed by the capitalist haven of Singapore.

The United States is ranked #8, and you’ll notice most of the Nordic nations with very good scores, along with two of the Baltic nations.

Here’s some of the report’s analysis, including the unsurprising observation that countries with market-friendly policies tend to have high incomes (a lesson one wishes Hillary Clinton was capable of absorbing).

OECD high-income economies have on average the most business-friendly regulatory systems, followed by Europe and Central Asia. There is, however, a large variation within those two regions. New Zealand has a ranking of 1 while Greece has a ranking of 61; FYR Macedonia stands at 10 while Tajikistan is at 128. The Sub-Saharan Africa region continues to be home to the economies with the least business-friendly regulations on average.

If you’re wondering where the rest of world’s nations rank, click on the table in the excerpt. One thing that stands out is that Venezuela – finally! – isn’t in last place. Though being 187 out of 190 is not exactly something to brag about.

While it’s good to give favorable attention to the nations with the highest scores, it’s also worthwhile to see which countries are moving in the right direction at the fastest pace.

Ten economies are highlighted this year for making the biggest improvements in their business regulations—Brunei Darussalam, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Belarus, Indonesia, Serbia, Georgia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Kudos to Georgia (the one wedged between Turkey and Russia on the Black Sea, not the one that is home to my beloved – but underperforming – Bulldogs). It’s the only country that is both in the overall top 20 and among the 10 nations that delivered the most positive reforms.

Here’s the table from the report showing why these 10 nations enjoyed a lot of improvement.

The report observes that a more sensible regulatory approach is associated with higher levels of prosperity.

A considerable body of evidence confirms that cross-country differences in the quality of business regulation are strongly correlated with differences in income per capita across economies.

But here’s the part that should open a few eyes among our leftist friends.

A more market-friendly regulatory environment also is linked to lower levels of inequality.

There is a negative association between the Gini index, which measures income inequality within an economy, and the distance to frontier score, which measures the quality and efficiency of business regulation when the data are compared over time (figure 1.8). Data across multiple years and economies show that as economies improve business regulation, income inequality tends to decrease in parallel.

As I’ve said many times tomorrow, I don’t care about differences in income. I simply want economic liberty so everybody has a chance to earn more income.

Nonetheless, it’s good have some evidence for statists who fixate on how the pie is sliced. Here’s the relevant chart from the report.

And here’s another chart showing that lots of regulation and red tape in labor markets (inevitably imposed for the ostensible goal of “protecting” workers) is correlated with a bigger underground economy.

Reminds me of the research showing how “labor protection” laws actually hurt workers.

Let’s now turn to the tax component, which predictably the part that grabbed my interest.

The score for this component is based on both the tax burden and the cost of tax compliance.

While the size of the tax cost imposed on businesses has implications for their ability to invest and grow, the efficiency of the tax administration system is also critical for businesses. A low cost of tax compliance and efficient tax-related procedures are advantageous for firms. Overly complicated tax systems are associated with high levels of tax evasion, large informal sectors, more corruption and less investment.

Here’s a table from the report showing some of the good reforms that have happened in various nations.

Sadly, America did not make any improvements in tax policy, so we don’t show up on any of the lists.

But since we’re on that topic, let’s now take a closer look at the United States. As already noted, America is ranked #8, which obviously is a reasonably good score.

But if you look at the various components, you sort of get the same story that we saw with the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, namely that there are some sub-par government policies that are hampering an otherwise very efficient private economy.

I’m particularly displeased that the U.S. scores so poorly (#51) in “starting a business.” And just imagine how much the score will drop if statists succeed in forcing states like Delaware, Wyoming, and Nevada to alter their business-friendly incorporation laws.

And I’m also unhappy that we rank #8 when the United States started at #3 in the World Bank’s inaugural 2006 edition of Doing Business. Thanks Bush! Thanks Obama!

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