Archive for the ‘Redistribution’ Category

I confess that I’m never sure how best to persuade and educate people about the value of limited government.

Regular readers presumably will put me in the second camp since most of my columns involve data and evidence on the superior outcomes associated with markets compared to statism.

That being said, I actually don’t think we will prevail until and unless we can convince people that it is ethically wrong to use government power to dictate and control the lives of other people.

So I’m always trying to figure out what motivates people and how they decide what policies to support.

With this in mind, I was very interested to see that nine scholars from five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia), representing six countries (Canada, United States, Argentina, Netherlands, Israel, and Australia) and four disciplines (psychology, criminology, economics, and anthropology), produced a major study on what motivates support for redistribution.

Why do people support economic redistribution? …By economic redistribution, we mean the modification of a distribution of resources across a population as the result of a political process. …it is worthwhile to understand how distributive policies are mapped into and refracted through our evolved psychological mechanisms.

The study explain how human evolution may impact our attitudes, a topic that I addressed back in 2010.

The human mind has been organized by natural selection to respond to evolutionarily recurrent challenges and opportunities pertaining to the social distribution of resources, as well as other social interactions. …For example, it was hypothesized that modern welfare activates the evolved forager risk-pooling psychology — a psychology that causes humans to be more motivated to share when individual productivity is subject to chance-driven interruptions, and less motivated to share when they think they are being exploited by low-effort free riders. Ancestrally, sharing resources that came in unsynchronized, high-variance, large packages (e.g., large game) allowed individuals to buffer each other’s shortfalls at low additional cost.

Here’s how the authors structured their research.

…we propose that the mind perceives modern redistribution as an ancestral game or scene featuring three notional players: the needy other, the better-off other, and the actor herself. …we use the existence of individual differences in compassion, self-interest, and envy as a research tool for investigating the joint contribution of these motivational systems to forming attitudes about redistribution.

And here’s how they conducted their research.

We conducted 13 studies with 6,024 participants in four countries to test the hypothesis that compassion, envy, and self-interest jointly predict support for redistribution. Participants completed instruments measuring their (i) support for redistribution; (ii) dispositional compassion; (iii) dispositional envy; (iv) expected personal gain or loss from redistribution (our measure of self-interest); (v) political party identification; (vi) aid given personally to the poor; (vii) wealthy-harming preferences; (viii) endorsement of pro-cedural fairness; (ix) endorsement of distributional fairness; (x) age; (xi) gender; and (xii) socioeconomic status (SES).

Now let’s look at some of the findings, starting with the fact that personal compassion is not associated with support for coerced redistribution. Indeed, advocates of government redistribution tend to be less generous (a point that I’ve previously noted).

Consider personally aiding the poor—as distinct from supporting state-enacted redistribution. Participants in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom (studies 1a–c) were asked whether they had given money, food, or other material resources of their own to the poor during the last 12 mo; 74–90% of the participants had. …dispositional compassion was the only reliable predictor of giving aid to the poor. A unit increase in dispositional compassion is associated with 161%, 361%, and 96% increased odds of having given aid to the poor in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom. …Interestingly, support for government redistribution was not a unique predictor of personally aiding the poor in the regressions… Support for government redistribution is not aiding the needy writ large—in the United States, data from the General Social Survey indicate that support for redistribution is associated with lower charitable contributions to religious and nonreligious causes (61). Unlike supporting redistribution, aiding the needy is predicted by compassion alone.

But here’s the most shocking part of the results.

The people motivated by envy are often interested in hurting those above them than they are in helping those below them.

…consider envy. Participants in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom (studies 1a–c) were given two hypothetical scenarios and asked to indicate their preferred one. In one scenario, the wealthy pay an additional 10% in taxes, and the poor receive an additional sum of money. In the other scenario, the wealthy pay an additional 50% in taxes (i.e., a tax increment five times greater than in the first scenario), and the poor receive (only) one-half the additional amount that they receive in the first scenario. That is, higher taxes paid by the wealthy yielded relatively less money for the poor, and vice versa… Fourteen percent to 18% of the American, Indian, and British participants indicated a preference for the scenario featuring a higher tax rate for the wealthy even though it produced less money to help the poor (SI Appendix, Table S3). We regressed this wealthy-harming preference simultaneously on support for redistribution… Dispositional envy was the only reliable predictor. A unit increase in envy is associated with 23%, 47%, and 43% greater odds of preferring the wealthy-harming scenario in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom.

This is astounding, in a very bad way.

It means that there really are people who are willing to deprive poor people so long as they can hurt rich people.

Even though I have shared polling data echoing these findings, I still have a hard time accepting that some people think like that.

But the data in this study seem to confirm Margaret Thatcher’s observation about what really motivates the left.

The authors have a more neutral way of saying this. They simply point out that compassion and envy can lead to very different results.

Compassion and envy motivate the attainment of different ends. Compassion, but not envy, predicts personally helping the poor. Envy, but not compassion, predicts a desire to tax the wealthy even when that costs the poor.

Since we’re on the topic or morality, markets, and statism, my colleague Ryan Bourne wrote an interesting column for CapX looking at research on what type of system brings out the best in people.

It turns out that markets promote cooperation and trust.

…experimental work of Herbert Gintis, who has analysed the behaviours of 15 tribal societies from around the world, including “hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, nomadic herders, and small-scale sedentary farmers — in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.” Playing a host of economic games, Gintis found that societies exposed to voluntary exchange through markets were more highly motivated by non-financial fairness considerations than those which were not. “The notion that the market economy makes people greedy, selfish, and amoral is simply fallacious,” Gintis concluded. …Gintis again summarises, “movements for religious and lifestyle tolerance, gender equality, and democracy have flourished and triumphed in societies governed by market exchange, and nowhere else.”

Whereas greater government control and intervention produce a zero-sum mentality and cheating.

…we might expect greed, cheating and intolerance to be more prevalent in societies where individuals can only fulfil selfish desires by taking from, overpowering or using dominant political or hierarchical positions to rule over and extort from others. Markets actually encourage collaboration and exchange between parties that might otherwise not interact. This interdependency discourages violence and builds trust and tolerance. …In a 2014 paper, economists tested Berlin residents’ willingness to cheat in a simple game involving rolling die, whereby self-reported scores could lead to small monetary pay-offs. Participants presented passports and ID cards to the researchers, which allowed them to assess their backgrounds. The results were clear: participants from an East German family background were far more likely to cheat than those from the West. What is more, the “longer individuals were exposed to socialism, the more likely they were to cheat.”

All of which brings me back to where I started.

How do you persuade people to favor liberty if they are somehow wired to have a zero-sum view of the world and they think that goal of public policy is to tear down the rich, even if that hurts the poor?

Though the internal inconsistency of the previous sentence maybe points to the problem. If the poor and the rich are both hurt by a policy (or if both benefit from a policy), then the world clearly isn’t zero-sum. And we now from voluminous evidence, of course, that the world isn’t that way.

But how to convince people, other than making the same arguments over and over again?

P.S. Jonah Goldberg and Dennis Prager both have videos with some insight on this issue.

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The notion that government should automatically give everyone money – a policy known as “universal basic income” – is now getting a lot of attention.

From an economic perspective, I acknowledge that the idea should not be summarily rejected. Here’s some of what I wrote earlier this year.

…there actually is a reasonable argument that the current welfare state is so dysfunctional that it would be better to simply give everyone a check instead.

But I’m nonetheless very skeptical. Simply stated, the math doesn’t work, people would have less incentive to work, and there would be “public choice” pressures to expand the size of the checks.

So when the topic came up as part of a recent interview, I criticized the proposal and praised Swiss voters for rejecting – by an overwhelming margin – a referendum that would have created a basic income in that nation.

My reaction was probably even more hostile than normal because I don’t like it when guilt-ridden rich people try to atone for their wealth by giving away my money.

Moreover, it’s silly for Zuckerberg to use Alaska as an example because of its oil wealth and small population.

That being said, if I had more time, I would have been more nuanced and pointed out that we hopefully will learn more from some of the experiments that are happening around the world. Especially what’s happening on the other side of the north pole from Alaska.

The New York Times published an in-depth preview of Finland’s experiment late last year. Here’s a description of the problem that Finnish policymakers want to solve.

…this city has…thousands of skilled engineers in need of work. Many were laid off by Nokia… While entrepreneurs are eager to put these people to work, the rules of Finland’s generous social safety net effectively discourage this. Jobless people generally cannot earn additional income while collecting unemployment benefits or they risk losing that assistance. For laid-off workers from Nokia, simply collecting a guaranteed unemployment check often presents a better financial proposition than taking a leap with a start-up.

For anyone who has studied the impact of redistribution programs on incentives to work, this hardly comes as a surprise.

Indeed, the story has both data and anecdotes to illustrate how the Finnish welfare state is subsidizing idleness.

In the five years after suffering a job loss, a Finnish family of four that is eligible for housing assistance receives average benefits equal to 73 percent of previous wages, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is nearly triple the level in the United States. …the social safety net…appears to be impeding the reinvigoration of the economy by discouraging unemployed people from working part time. …Mr. Saloranta has his eyes on a former Nokia employee who is masterly at developing prototypes. He only needs him part time. He could pay 2,000 euros a month (about $2,090). Yet this potential hire is bringing home more than that via his unemployment benefits. “It’s more profitable for him to just wait at home for some ideal job,” Mr. Saloranta complains.

So the Finnish government wants to see if a basic income can solve this problem.

…the Finnish government is exploring how to change that calculus, initiating an experiment in a form of social welfare: universal basic income. Early next year, the government plans to randomly select roughly 2,000 unemployed people — from white-collar coders to blue-collar construction workers. It will give them benefits automatically, absent bureaucratic hassle and minus penalties for amassing extra income. The government is eager to see what happens next. Will more people pursue jobs or start businesses? How many will stop working and squander their money on vodka? Will those liberated from the time-sucking entanglements of the unemployment system use their freedom to gain education, setting themselves up for promising new careers? …The answers — to be determined over a two-year trial — could shape social welfare policy far beyond Nordic terrain.

The results from this experiment will help answer some big questions.

…basic income confronts fundamental disagreements about human reality. If people are released from fears that — absent work — they risk finding themselves sleeping outdoors, will they devolve into freeloaders? “Some people think basic income will solve every problem under the sun, and some people think it’s from the hand of Satan and will destroy our work ethic,” says Olli Kangas, who oversees research at Kela, a Finnish government agency that administers many social welfare programs. “I’m hoping we can create some knowledge on this issue.” …Finland’s concerns are pragmatic. The government has no interest in freeing wage earners to write poetry. It is eager to generate more jobs.

As I noted above, this New York Times report was from late last year. It was a preview of Finland’s experiment.

People have been getting checks for several months. Are there any preliminary indications of the impact?

Well, the good news is that recipients apparently like getting free money. Here are some excerpts from a report by Business Insider.

…some of the 2,000 recipients are already reporting lower levels of stress. The $600 they receive each month might not be much, but it’s enough to put some people’s anxiety at ease.

But the bad news is that the handouts are giving people the flexibility to reject work.

Marjukka Turunen, head of Kela’s legal benefits unit, told Kera News. “There was this one woman who said: ‘I was afraid every time the phone would ring, that unemployment services are calling to offer me a job,'”… Scott Santens, a basic income advocate and writer…says basic income redistributes power into the middle-class — namely, to turn down unappealing jobs.

The last sentence of the excerpt is particularly worrisome. Some advocates think universal handouts are good precisely because people can work less.

It’s obviously too early to draw sweeping conclusions, especially based on a couple of anecdotes.

However, a recent column in the New York Times by two left-leaning Finns suggests that the data will not be favorable to universal handouts. The authors start with a basic explanation of the issue.

Universal basic income is generating considerable interest these days, from Bernie Sanders, who says he is “absolutely sympathetic” to the idea, to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and other tech billionaires. The basic idea behind it is that handing out unconditional cash to all citizens, employed or not, would help reduce poverty and inequality… As a rich country in the European Union, with one of the highest rates of social spending in the world, Finland seemed like an ideal testing ground for a state-of-the-art social welfare experiment. …Kela, the national social-insurance institute, randomly selected 2,000 Finns between 25 and 58 years of age who were already getting some form of unemployment benefits. The subsidies were offered to people who had been unemployed for about one year or more, or who had less than six months of work experience.

But then they denigrate the study.

…the Finnish trial was poorly designed… The trial size was cut to one-fifth of what had originally been proposed, and is now too small to be scientifically viable. Instead of giving free money to everyone, the experiment is handing out, in effect, a form of unconditional unemployment benefits. In other words, there is nothing universal about this version of universal basic income. …The government has made no secret of the fact that its universal basic income experiment isn’t about liberating the poor or fighting inequality. Instead, the trial’s “primary goal” is “promoting employment,” the government explained in a 2016 document proposing the project to Parliament. Meaning: The project was always meant to incentivize people to accept low-paying and low-productivity jobs.

Maybe I’m reading between the lines, but it sounds like they are worried that the results ultimately will show that a basic income discourages labor supply.

Which reinforces my concerns about the entire concept.

Yes, the current system is bad for both poor people and taxpayers. But why would anyone think that we’ll get better results if we give generous handouts to everyone?

So if we replace all those handouts with one big universal handout, is there any reason to expect that somehow people will be more likely to find jobs and contribute to the economy?

Again, we need to wait another year or two before we have comprehensive data from Finland. But I’m skeptical that we’ll get a favorable outcome.

P.S. The Wizard-of-Id parody shown above contains a lot of insight about labor supply and incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

P.P.S. Since I rarely write about Finland, I should point out that it is ranked #20 for economic liberty, only four spots behind the United States (and the country is more pro-market than America when looking at non-fiscal policy factors).

P.P.P.S. On the minus side, Finland has decided that broadband access is somehow a human right. On the plus side, the country’s central bank produces good research on the burden of government spending, and its former president understood the essential flaw of Keynesian economics.

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In addition to his exemplary work as a Senior Fellow for the Cato Institute, Johan Norberg narrates some great videos for Free to Choose Media. Here are some that caught my eye.

But my favorite video, which I shared back in January, is his concise explanation of why policy makers should focus on fighting poverty rather than reducing inequality.

I’m posting it again to set the stage for a discussion on inequality and fairness.

Now let’s dig into the main topic for today.

A study by three academics from Yale’s Department of Psychology concludes that people want fairness rather than equality.

…there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness. Drawing upon laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children, we argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality.

My former grad school classmate Steve Horwitz wrote about the aforementioned study

…what we really care about is something other than inequality per se. We care about upward mobility, or average income overall, or how well the least well off do. …A recent study in Nature argued, with evidence, that what bothers people more than inequality per se is “unfairness.” People will accept inequality if they feel the process that produced it is fair. …when I give talks about inequality. I point out the number of Apple products visible in the room and ask them if they think the wealth Steve Jobs and other Apple founders accumulated over their lifetimes was objectionable. Is that the kind of inequality they object to? Students are usually hard-pressed to articulate why Jobs’ wealth is wrong… I also remind them that economic studies show that only about 4% of the total benefits of innovation accrue to the innovator. The rest goes to consumers.

Steve cites Nozick and Hayek to bolster his argument before then making the key point that markets produce material abundance based on genuine fairness.

As Robert Nozick argued in Anarchy, State, and Utopia: if each step in the evolution of the market is fair by itself, how can the pattern of income that emerges be unfair? …Hayek…observed in The Constitution of Liberty that if we want equality of outcomes, we will have to treat people unequally. If, however, we treat people equally, we will get unequal outcomes. Hayek’s argument was premised on the fact that human beings are not equal in our native intelligence, strength, skills, and abilities. …If people really care about fairness, then supporters of the market should be insisting on the importance of equality before the law. …Equality of outcomes requires that we treat people differently, and this will likely be perceived as unfair by many. Equality before the law corresponds better with notions of fairness even if the outcomes it produces are unequal. …If what appear to be concerns about inequality are, in fact, concerns about unfairness, we have ways of addressing them that demonstrate the power of exchange and competitive markets. Markets are more fair because they require that governments treat us all equally and that none of us have the ability to use political power to protect ourselves from the competition of the marketplace and the choices of consumers. In addition, market-based societies have been the best cure for poverty humans have ever known.

Writing for CapX, Oliver Wiseman analyzes other scholarly research on equality and fairness.

A 2012 study by behavioural economists Dan Ariely and Mike Norton generated some attention for demonstrating that Americans wanted to live in a more equal country. But more equal is not the same thing as fully equal. …if you let people choose between equal and unequal societies – and then tell them that they themselves will be assigned a level of wealth within it completely at random – most people choose inequality. And that preference is observable across the political spectrum, in different countries and at a range of ages.

But people don’t want undeserved inequality since that is the result of unfair interventions (i.e., cronyism).

This paper’s conclusions help explain much of the outcry over economic inequality in recent years. Occupy Wall Street and the very idea of the “one per cent” emerged just after the financial crisis plunged much of the world into recession, and US and British banks were handed billion-dollar bailouts to steady the ship. The anger didn’t come from the fact that bankers were so well paid. It came from the perception that they’d made that money by piling up risk rather than being particularly clever or hard-working – risk that was now being underwritten by the taxpayer. The wealth wasn’t just distributed unequally, but unfairly. The market mechanisms that most people accepted as the rules of the economic game suddenly seemed rigged. …Voters, in other words, don’t want equality – they want fairness. …As the Soviets found, true economic equality cannot be accommodated within a system that allows people tolerable levels of economic and political freedom. But fairness, by contrast, is something capitalism can – and should – deliver.

Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University cites some additional academic research buttressing the conclusion people don’t object to fair types of inequality.

…most Americans don’t mind inequality nearly as much as pundits and academics suggest. A recent research paper, by Graham Wright of Brandeis University, found that polled attitudes about economic inequality don’t correlate very well with the desire for government to address it. There is even partial evidence, once controls are introduced into the statistics, that talk of inequality reduces the support for doing something about it. …It’s not obvious why such counterintuitive results might be the case. One possibility is that…talk about economic inequality increases political polarization, which lowers the chance of effective action. Or that criticizing American society may cause us to feel less virtuous, which in turn may cause us to act with less virtue. …A variety of other research papers have been showing that inequality is not a major concern per se. One recent study by Matthew Weinzierl of Harvard Business School shows that most Americans are quite willing to accept economic inequality that stems from brute luck, and that they are inclined to assume that inequality is justified unless proved otherwise.

Last but not least, Anne Bradley of the Institute for Humane Studies augments this analysis by explaining the difference between ethical market-driven inequality versus unfair cronyist-caused inequality.

The question of whether income inequality is bad hinges on the institutions within that society and whether they support entrepreneurship and creativity or thuggery and exploitation. Income inequality is good when people earn their money by discovering new and better ways of doing things and, through the profit mechanism, are encouraged to bring those discoveries to ordinary people. …Rising incomes across all income groups (even if at different rates) is most often the sign of a vibrant economy where strangers are encouraged to serve each other and solve problems. Stagnant incomes suggest something else: either a rigged economy where only insiders can play, or an economy where the government controls a large portion of social resources, stalling incomes, wealth, and wellbeing.

She includes a very powerful example of why it can be much better to live in a society with high levels of (fair) inequality.

Consider the following thought experiment: knowing nothing other than the Gini index scores, would you rather live in a world with a Gini of .296 (closer to equality) or .537 (farther from equality)? Many people when asked this question choose the world of .296. These are the real Gini scores of Pakistan (.296) and Hong Kong (.537). If given the choice, I would live in Hong Kong without thinking twice. Hong Kong has a thriving economy and high incomes, and it is the world leader in economic freedom. The difference between these two countries could not be more striking. In Pakistan, there might be more income equality, but everyone is poorer. It is difficult to emerge out of poverty in Pakistan. Hong Kong provides a much richer environment where people are encouraged to start businesses, and this is the best hope for rising incomes, or income mobility.

Her example of Hong Kong and Pakistan is probably the most important takeaway from today’s column.

Simply stated, it’s better to be poor in a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong where there is strong growth and high levels of upward mobility. Indeed, I often use a similar example when giving speeches, asking audiences whether poor people are better off in Hong Kong, which has only a tiny welfare state, or better off in nations such as France and Greece, which have bloated welfare states but very little economic dynamism.

The answer is obvious. Or should be obvious, at least to everyone who wants to help the poor more than they want to punish the rich (and there are plenty in the latter camp, as Margaret Thatcher explained).

And I’m now going to add my China example to my speeches since inequality dramatically increased at the same time that there was a stupendous reduction in poverty.

Once again, the moral of the story should be obvious. Focus on growth. Yes, some rich people will get richer, but the really great news is that the poor will get richer as well. And so long as everyone is earning money through voluntary exchange rather than government coercion, that also happens to be how a fair economy operates.

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Time for another trip down Memory Lane to the early years of the Obama Administration.

Two days ago, I wrote about the market-wrecking price controls in Obamacare. And yesterday, I shared a new study exposing the utter failure of Obama’s Cash-for-Clunkers scheme. Now let’s take a look at the track record of the “Obamaphone.”

Though let’s start by noting that federal subsidies for phone service existed well before Obama took office. He simply took a misguided program and made it bigger. Here’s a concise explanation of the program from a story I shared in 2014.

The Federal Communications Commission program…charges a dollar or two per line on every American’s phone bill. The revenue generated by the “Universal Service Fund fee” is then used to pay select phone companies $9.25 per month for each poor person they sign up for a free phone. …its cost doubled in five years to $1.75 billion in 2011, and in some states, the number of phones given out exceeded the total eligible population.

But since big government is a recipe for big corruption, you won’t be surprised to learn that a bigger program of phone subsidies has produced scandalous levels of waste, fraud, and abuse. The Government Accountability Office has just released a report revealing widespread incompetence and malfeasance in the “Lifeline” program. Here are some highlights from GAO’s one-page summary.

GAO found weaknesses in several areas. For example, Lifeline’s structure relies on over 2,000 Eligible Telecommunication Carriers that are Lifeline providers to implement key program functions, such as verifying subscriber eligibility. This complex internal control environment is susceptible to risk of fraud, waste, and abuse as companies may have financial incentives to enroll as many customers as possible.

Yes, you read correctly. The private companies that are mooching off this program are in charge of determining eligibility, even though they get more handouts by signing up more recipients.

As you might expect, this is a green light for massive fraud.

Based on its matching of subscriber to benefit data, GAO was unable to confirm whether about 1.2 million individuals of the 3.5 million it reviewed, or 36 percent, participated in a qualifying benefit program, such as Medicaid, as stated on their Lifeline enrollment application.

Readers are welcome to plow their way through GAO’s full 89-page report, but news reports have teased out the most important details.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Times.

The controversial “Obamaphone” program, which pays for cellphones for the poor, is rife with fraud, according to a new government report released Thursday that found more than a third of enrollees may not even be qualified. Known officially as the Lifeline Program, the phone giveaway became a symbol of government waste in the previous administration. …the program has stashed some $9 billion in assets in private bank accounts rather than with the federal treasury, further increasing risks and depriving taxpayers of the full benefit of that money. “…everything that could go wrong is going wrong,” said Mrs. McCaskill, ranking Democrat on the Senate’s chief oversight committee and who is a former state auditor in Missouri. “We’re currently letting phone companies cash a government check every month with little more than the honor system to hold them accountable, and that simply can’t continue,” she said. …More than 5,500 people were found to be enrolled for two phones, while the program was paying for nearly 6,400 phones for persons the government has listed as having died. Investigators also submitted fraudulent applications to see what would happen, and 12 of the 19 phone carriers they applied to approved a phone.

The Daily Caller’s report also highlighted the program’s rampant fraud.

A massive portion of Obamaphone recipients are receiving the benefit after lying on their applications, according to a new 90-page report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). An undercover sting operation showed ineligible applications were approved 63 percent of the time, and a review that found that 36 to 65 percent of beneficiaries in various categories had lied in easily-detectable ways but were approved anyway. The fraud reached unheard-of proportions because the Federal Communications Commission let the task of screening for eligibility fall to phone companies that profit off of enrolling as many people as possible. …All someone has to do to apply for free cell phone service is say that they are on another welfare program, such as food stamps or disability, known as SSI. But nationwide, “only 35.5 percent of people claiming eligibility based on SSI could actually be confirmed as eligible,” the GAO found. …Special interests have aggressively employed a bootleggers-and-Baptists model, with companies who profit greasing the wheels of government with donations and influence-peddling and using poor people as props in marketing campaigns. …The wife of the CEO of TracFone, the largest beneficiary of Obamaphones, was a mega-fundraiser for former President Barack Obama. …And a Pew Research Center report found that the problem of lack of access to technology is far less than it once was, the GAO noted. The FCC’s own data shows that “millions of Lifeline-eligible households are obtaining voice service without Lifeline,” while the fraud rates show that many of the people who do sign up are wealthier than those who don’t.

Again, keep in mind that subsidized telephone service isn’t an Obama invention.

He merely built upon a bad idea that existed for decades.

But also keep in mind that the waste, fraud, and abuse in the Obamaphone program is an inherent part of big government.

There’s fraud in the Medicare program. There’s fraud in the EITC program. There’s fraud in food stamps. There’s fraud in Medicaid. There’s fraud in the disability program. There’s welfare fraud.

But I don’t want to merely pick on what are perceived to be Democrat programs.

There’s also lots of waste, fraud, and abuse at the Pentagon.

Simply stated, when you give away free money, people will do dodgy things to get some of it.

P.S. Given the pervasive parasitical corruption of Washington, nobody should be surprised to learn that plenty of Republican lobbyists are willing to shill for the Obamaphone program.

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I periodically share data showing that living standards are higher in the United States than in Europe.

My goal isn’t to be jingoistic. Instead, I’m warning readers that we won’t be as prosperous if we copy out tax-and-spend friends on the other side of the Atlantic (just like I try to draw certain conclusions when showing how many low-tax jurisdictions have higher levels of economic output than the United States).

I’m sometimes asked, though, how America can be doing better than Europe when we have more poverty.

And when I ask them why they thinks that’s the case, they will point to sources such as this study from the German-based Institute of Labor Economics. Here’s some attention-grabbing data from the report.

The United States has the highest poverty rate both overall and among households with an employed person, but it stands farther away from the other countries on its in-work poverty rate than its overall poverty rate. The contrast between the US and three other English-speaking countries — Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom — is particularly striking. Compared to those three nations, the United States has an overall poverty rate only a little higher but an in-work poverty rate that is much higher.

And here’s the main chart from the study, with the United States as the bottom. It appears that there twice as much poverty in the USA as there is in a stagnant economy like France.

There even appears to be more poverty in America than there is in Spain and Italy, both of which are so economically shaky that they required bailouts during the recent fiscal/financial crisis.

Sounds horrible, right?

Yes, it does sound really bad. However, it’s total nonsense. Because what you read in the excerpt and see in the graph has nothing to do with poverty.

Instead, it’s a measure of income distribution.

And, if you read carefully, the study actually admits there’s a bait-and-switch.

The…approach to measuring poverty is a “relative” one, with the poverty line set at 60 or 50 percent of the median income.

Think about what this means. A country where everyone is impoverished will have zero or close-to-zero poverty because everyone is at the median income. But as I’ve explained before, a very wealthy society can have lots of “poverty” if some people are a lot richer than others.

And since the United States is much richer than other nations, this means an American household with $35,000 of income can be poor, even though they wouldn’t count as poor if they earned that much elsewhere.

This is like grading on a rigged curve. And if you read the fine print of the IZA study, you’ll see that the “poverty” threshold for a four-person household magically jumps by $16,260.

For a household of four (two adults, two children) the difference between the official US threshold and the 60-percent-of-median threshold amounts to more than $16,000 ($24,000 versus $40,260). This means that the size of the working poor population in America according to the official poverty measure is significantly lower than the size obtained in studies using a relative threshold.

In other words, you can calculate a much higher poverty rate if you include people who aren’t poor.

By the way, since the IZA report acknowledges this bait-and-switch approach, I guess one would have to say that the study technically is honest.

But it’s still misleading because most people aren’t going to read the fine print. Instead, they’ll see the main chart showing higher “poverty” and assume that there is a much higher percentage of actual poor people in the United States.

Moreover, some people may understand that there’s a bait-and-switch and simply want to help fool additional people.

And I’m guessing that this is exactly what the authors and the IZA staff expected and wanted. And if that’s the case, then the study is deliberately misleading, even if not technically dishonest.

I’ll close by stating that I don’t mind if folks on the left want to argue that market-based societies are somehow unfair because some people are richer than others. And it’s also fine for them to argue that we should be willing sacrifice some of our national prosperity to achieve more after-the-fact equality of income.

But I’d like for them to be upfront about their agenda and not hide behind dodgy data manipulation.

P.S.When you do apples-to-apples comparisons of the United States with the best-performing economies of Europe, you find that the poor tend to be at the same level, but every other group is better off in America.

P.P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that both the Obama Administration and the leftists at the OECD prefer the “relative” definition of poverty.

P.P.P.S. The problem with our statist friends, as Margaret Thatcher explained, is that some of them are so upset about inequality that they’re willing to make everyone poorer if that’s what it takes to reduce income differences.

P.P.P.P.S. Indeed, this “Swiftian” column about reducing inequality is satire, but one wonders whether statists would actually accept such an outcome.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Data from China demonstrates why our attention should be on poverty reduction rather than inequality.

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If there was a ranking of international bureaucracies, the World Bank would be my favorite (or, to be more accurate, least unfavorite). Yes, it sometimes produces bad studies, but it also is the source of good research on topics such as government spending, Social Security reform, tax complexity, financial regulation, and economic liberty. And the rankings in Doing Business are a very helpful way of measuring and comparing regulatory burdens (which is why leftists are so hostile to the project). Moreover, it’s hard to dislike an organization that has a mission of fighting poverty (even if it sometimes thinks redistribution is the right strategy).

The United Nations would be next on the list. The good news is that it has many well-meaning people. The bad news is that is has some very misguided projects. But since it isn’t very effective, I confess that it doesn’t command much of my attention.

At the bottom would be either the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The IMF is notorious for supporting bailouts and advocating tax increases. Depending on my mood, it’s either the “Dr. Kevorkian of economic policy” or the “dumpster fire of the global economy.” Yes, I try to be fair and will acknowledge occasional good research (on taxation, government spending, financial regulation, spending caps, etc), but there’s no question that the net impact of the IMF is negative.

The OECD also is on the wrong side when looking at the big picture. Once again, I’ll admit that there are occasional good studies (on spending caps, tax policy, government spending, etc). But those glimmers of good news are overwhelmed by a statist agenda on a wide range of policies. Most recently, the Paris-based bureaucracy proposed more taxes and more spending for the American economy. And if you’re interested in other examples, I’ve attached a list of examples at the bottom of this column.

But the main purpose of this column is to review a new publication from the OECD. As part of its so-called “Bridging the Gap” project, the bureaucrats in Paris just issued a new report that reads as if it was taken from the campaign speeches of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Here are some of the lowlights, starting with a misguided fixation on inequality.

Fiscal redistribution through taxes and transfers plays a crucial role in containing the impact of market income inequality on disposable income… Policies aimed at promoting growth should consider how growth will have an impact on many other outcomes, and how to ensure that those policies avoid the “grow first, distribute later” assumption that has characterised the economic paradigm until recently. It is now clear that growth strategies need to consider from the outset the way in which their benefits will be distributed to different income groups. … Inequalities tear at the fabric of our societies. Inequality of incomes translates seamlessly into inequality of opportunities for children, including education, health and jobs, and lower future prospects to flourish individually and collectively. …inequalities are reaching a tipping point

I’m tempted to joke that the bureaucrats want a “distribute first, grow never” approach, but let’s focus on the fact that the real goal should be reducing poverty rather than reducing inequality.

If I’m poor, I want an opportunity to increase my income. And if there’s a policy that will help give me that opportunity, it doesn’t matter if that policy enables Bill Gates to increase his income at a faster rate.

That’s why there’s no substitute for economic growth if you really want to help the less fortunate.

But the not-so-subtle message of the OECD report is that poor people are poor because rich people are rich. The bureaucrats are concerned with how to re-slice the pie rather than how to expand the size of the pie.

The really troubling material is in the final chapter, but I can’t resist commenting on a few items that appeared earlier in the report.

Such as the fact that the bureaucrats were not happy when unemployment benefits in the United States were curtailed.

…redistribution helped cushion increases in market income inequality, but its role has since tended to fall in a majority of OECD countries in the most recent years…it reflects the phasing out of fiscal stimulus, as in the United States, where the extension of unemployment benefit duration carried out in 2008-09 was rolled back in 2011.

Too bad nobody told the authors that the job market improved in America when subsidies for joblessness were cut back.

But that kind of mistake is predictable since the OECD puts such a high value on coercive redistribution.

I’m also not surprised that the bureaucrats are upset that tax competition has resulted in lower tax rates.

Globalisation has increased the difficulty for governments in taxing mobile capital income. Increased levels of capital mobility have led to certain reductions in statutory income tax rates…, which has reduced the progressivity of tax systems… The distributional effects of these reductions in statutory tax rates, especially the reduction in top personal income tax rates, has been a contributing factor to the rise in inequalities.

And the OECD even regurgitated its bizarre hypothesis that inequality reduces growth.

Widespread increases in income inequality are a source of concern…for their potential impact on economic performance. …recent OECD work estimates that rising inequality between 1985 and 2005 might have contributed to knocking more than 4 percentage points off growth between 1990-2010.

The final chapter, though, is where the OECD unveils its Bernie Sanders/Jeremy Corbyn agenda. I guess young people might say that the bureaucrats were “letting their statism freak flag fly.”

Governments have a vital role to play…targeted social investment, redistributive fiscal policy and comprehensive labour market support…fiscal policy is the key mechanism for redistributing market incomes and it is important that it is set up to prioritise support for vulnerable population groups at all points in the economic cycle.

And what are some of these policies?

The OECD wants to expand the welfare state, even though such policies already have caused fiscal crises in many nations.

The size of means-tested programmes is relatively small in many countries and there is room for expansion, by either making those programmes more generous or by extending their coverage.

The bureaucrats also want more double taxation on income that is saved and invested.

…enhancing tax progressivity via savings tax reform. Income from savings is taxed progressively, though at lower rates than labour and with a lot of variation in taxation across asset types. …There is therefore scope to increase the fairness and the neutrality of the taxation of capital income…removing tax expenditures…strengthening progressivity of tax bases. …tax expenditures such as tax deductions for private pension contributions…are regressive since higher income taxpayers tend to save… Removing such tax expenditures could simultaneously reduce inequality and make the tax system more efficient.

There’s also an embrace of punitive property taxes.

Increased taxation of residential property could increase both growth and strengthen progressivity. …if designed well can fall mostly on high-wealth, high-income households.

Amazingly, the OECD even wants more onerous death taxes, even though such policies have a very negative impact on capital formation.

Strengthening inheritance and gift taxes can support inclusive growth. … Inheritance taxes can…help achieve intergenerational equity goals. …In order to be effective, inheritance taxes must also be combined with taxes on gifts and wealth transfers during the taxpayers’ lifetime, as well as with measures to address avoidance and evasion.

The bureaucrats want more subsidies for joblessness.

Sufficiently generous unemployment benefits and social-assistance systems with a wide coverage are also a key.

And they even endorse an idea that is so economically absurd that it was rejected by President Obama’s main economic adviser.

Promoting gender equality in access to employment and job quality is a key component of inclusive growth. …gender pay gaps remaining at about 15% across the OECD, on average, with little change in recent years.

Here’s another passage urging a bigger welfare state.

Compensatory policies that redistribute income also have a role to play in…lowering post-redistribution inequality. …strong and well-designed social safety nets programmes are all the more needed.

And here’s a specific policy for more housing subsidies.

Access to affordable housing is a challenge for inclusion, and solutions include not only better housing policies but also better urban planning and governance of land use. …Explicit policies to support access to housing include housing allowances, social housing arrangements and different kinds of financial support towards homeownership.

As you can see, that’s an impressive collection of statist policies, even for the OECD.

P.S. I wrote last year that some folks on the left enjoy very lavish incomes while crusading about inequality. The same is true of the OECD, where bureaucrats not only are lavishly compensated (a general rule for international organizations), but they also enjoy tax-free incomes while urging higher taxes on the rest of us.

P.P.S. Here are additional examples of very dodgy research from the OECD.

P.P.P.S. Don’t forget that the OECD’s statist agenda is financed by your tax dollars.

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There are a lot of positive things to be said about Norway.

In other words, Norway is a typical Nordic nation, with open markets, light regulation, free trade, and honest government. That’s the good news.

The bad news, at least from my perspective, is that Norway also is a typical Nordic nation in that it has a big welfare state.

But unlike the other Nordic nations, Norway also has a lot of oil. And, just like Alaska, it’s very easy to finance a big public sector when a government has access to a huge amount of petroleum-related revenue.

So does this make the country special? Is Norway a welfare-state Nirvana? In some sense, the answer is yes. As I’ve noted before, if a country wants a big welfare state, it makes a lot of sense to have very market-oriented policy in other areas to compensate. And if the country also happens to be rich with oil, that’s presumably not a bad combination.

But I would argue, of course, that Norway would be in better shape if the fiscal burden of government wasn’t so onerous.

And there’s growing evidence to validate my concerns. Bloomberg reports that falling oil prices are exposing problems with Norway’s extravagant welfare state.

More than a fifth of its working age population relied on unemployment or sick-leave benefits throughout 2016, according to a study by the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration, or NAV. With welfare payments up 3 percent in 2016, the growing dependence will likely make it harder for Norway to wean itself off oil and gas production. While the discovery of petroleum 50 years ago…helped make the world’s most generous welfare system possible — declining resources…means that the country will need to find other legs to stand on to keep up its standard of living.

Norway isn’t in any immediate danger, but I wonder whether it can still prosper when the oil runs out.

Simply stated, the welfare state may have eroded the country’s work ethic (something that’s also a problem in America).

That’s something that the stewards of the system readily admit. The agency’s acronym has even become a verb, to NAV, which means `being on benefits.’ “To uphold the Norwegian welfare system we need more people at work and not on passive benefits,” said Sigrun Vageng, the head of NAV, in an emailed answered to questions.

The problem of dependency has even spread to the richer parts of the country.

…dependency on state handouts now runs deeper. It also spread to the nation’s richest regions after the plunge in oil prices… Welfare payments in Rogaland, the regional center of the oil industry and home to Statoil ASA, rose a whopping 13 percent last year. Some 19 percent received benefits on average each month in Rogaland. In Oslo, it was 15 percent.

And once there are too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency, it’s not easy to rejuvenate a nation’s social capital.

…with an increasing share of its working age population on welfare benefits instead of paying taxes, the desired changes could prove a difficult task for whoever is in power. And many are also pulling out of the workforce altogether. The percentage of people of working age in employment fell to 70.6 percent in 2016, a 21-year low… “This comes as a big cost for the society, both through lost tax revenues and the direct expenses from social benefit payments,” said Jeanette Strom Fjaere, an economist at DNB.

On the bright side, Norway has set aside lots of oil money.

Norway…has over the past 20 years built up a sovereign wealth fund.

In other words, Norway is the opposite of Venezuela. It hasn’t squandered its oil wealth on bigger government.

On the dark side, it has reached the point where its sovereign wealth fund is shrinking rather than growing.

…the government last year started withdrawing cash for the first time.

Some people say this is similar to America’s Social Security system, which has a Trust Fund that is now being depleted. I reject that analogy for the simple reason that Norway’s fund is filled with real assets. The Social Security Trust Fund, by contrast, is nothing but a pile of IOUs (as even the Clinton Administration acknowledged).

But I’m digressing. Let’s close by observing that development economists sometimes write about a “resource curse” that exists when politicians feel they can impose lots of bad policy because it is easy to generate revenue by selling natural resources.

Some argue that Norway, with its commitment to the rule of law and markets, is the exception to the rule. Yes, its welfare state is excessive, but not because of oil. Indeed, there’s more welfare spending as a share of GDP in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.

Though don’t forget that Norway’s GDP is boosted by all the oil wealth, so I’m guessing per-capita welfare outlays are higher than in neighboring countries (an important distinction, as illustrated by this data on government health spending).

So perhaps a version of the resource curse will hit Norway. But it won’t be because of a Venezuelan-style kleptocracy. Instead, it will be because the welfare state lures too many people into dependency. And when the oil money runs out, fixing that problem will be very difficult.

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