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Archive for the ‘Redistribution’ Category

I’ve repeatedly argued that faster growth is the only effective way of helping the less fortunate.

Class warfare and redistribution, by contrast, are not effective. Such policies are based on the fallacy that the economy is a fixed pie, and proponents of this view fixate on inequality because they mistakenly believe that additional income for the rich means less income for the poor.

Today, let’s look at some numbers that prove that a fixation on inequality is misguided. The Census Bureau this week released its annual report on Income and Poverty in the United States. That publication includes data (Table A-2) showing annual inflation-adjusted earnings by income quintile between 1967-2017.

To see if my left-leaning friends are right about the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, I calculated the annual percent change for each quintile. Lo and behold, the data actually show that there’s a very clear pattern showing how all income quintiles tend to rise and fall together.

The lesson from this data is clear. If you want policies that help the poor, those also will be policies that help the middle class and rich.

And if you hate the rich, you need to realize that policies hurting them will almost certainly hurt the less fortunate as well.

One other lesson is that all income quintiles did particularly well during the 1980s and 1990s when free-market policies prevailed.

P.S. Many people (including on the left) have pointed out that the Census Bureau’s numbers under-count compensation because fringe benefits such as healthcare are excluded. This is a very legitimate complaint, but it doesn’t change the fact that all income quintiles tend to rise and fall together. For what it’s worth, adding other forms of compensation would boost lower quintiles compared to higher quintiles.

P.P.S. Here’s an interesting video from Pew Research showing how the middle class has become more prosperous over the past few decades.

P.P.P.S. The Census Bureau’s report also has the latest data on poverty. The good news is that the poverty rate fell. The bad news is that long-run progress ground to a halt once the federal government launched the ill-fated War on Poverty.

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Last September, I shared some very encouraging data showing how extreme poverty dramatically has declined in the developing world.

And I noted that this progress happened during a time when the “Washington Consensus” was resulting in “neoliberal” policies (meaning “classical liberal“) in those nations (confirmed by data from Economic Freedom of the World).

In other words, pro-market policies were the recipe for poverty reduction, not foreign aid or big government.

Sadly, the Washington Consensus has been supplanted. Bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are now pushing a statist agenda based on the bizarre theory that higher taxes and more spending somehow produce prosperity.

To add insult to injury, some people now want to rewrite history and argue that free markets don’t deserve credit for the poverty reduction that already has occurred.

Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, writing for Our World in Data, wants readers to conclude that redistribution programs deserve credit.

…the share of people living in extreme poverty around the world has fallen continuously over the last two centuries. …many often say that globalization in the form of ‘free-market capitalism’ is the main force to be thanked for such remarkable historical achievement. …this focus on ‘free-market capitalism’ alone is misguided. …Governments around the world have dramatically increased their potential to collect revenues in order to redistribute resources through social transfers… The reach of governments has grown substantially over the last century: the share of total output that governments control is much larger today than a century ago.

And for evidence, Mr. Ortiz-Ospina included this chart.

I shared a version of this data back in June, asserting that the explosion of social welfare spending made this “the western world’s most depressing chart.”

So does Ortiz-Ospina have a compelling argument? Does poverty go down as welfare spending goes up?

Nope. Johan Norberg points out that there is a gaping flaw in this argument. An enormous, gigantic hole.

Wow. This isn’t just a flaw. It’s malpractice. It’s absurd to argue that welfare spending in developed nations somehow led to poverty reduction in developing countries.

I hope Mr. Ortiz-Ospina is just an inexperienced intern, because if he really understands the data, one might be forced to conclude that he’s dishonest.

But let’s set that issue aside. Johan closes his video by explaining that poverty in rich nations declined before modern welfare states. I want to expand on that point.

Johan cited Martin Ravallion, so I tracked down his work. And here’s the chart he put together, which I’ve modified to show (outlined in red) that extreme poverty basically disappeared between 1820 and 1930.

And guess what?

That was the period when there was no welfare state. Not only is that apparent from Our World in Data, it’s also what we see in Vito Tanzi’s numbers.

Here’s Tanzi’s table, which I first shared five years ago. And I’ve circled in red the 1880-1930 data to underscore that there was virtually no redistribution during the years poverty was declining.

The bottom line is that poverty in the western world fell during the period of small government. Yet some people want to put the cart before the horse. They’re making the absurd argument that post-1950s welfare spending somehow reduced poverty before the 1930s.

That’s as absurd as Paul Krugman blaming a 2008 recession in Estonia on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

P.S. For those who want U.S.-specific data, it’s worth noting that dramatic reductions in American poverty all occurred before Washington launched the so-called “War on Poverty.”

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When I argue against tax increases, I generally rely on two compelling points.

  1. Higher taxes will undermine prosperity by penalizing productive behavior.
  2. More money for politicians will trigger more spending, so red ink will increase.

When I argue against centralization and urge Swiss-style federalism, I also rely on two very strong points.

  1. Local governments will be more responsible if they raise and spend their own funds.
  2. Competition among local jurisdictions will encourage better public policy.

Now let’s mix these issues together by looking at some academic research on what happens when politicians get a windfall of revenue from a  centralized source.

Well, according to new research from Italy’s central bank, bigger government means more corruption.

…large financial transfers from a central unit of government to lower levels of government…come with the risk of exacerbating the agency problem due to the fact that the funds are collected at a higher level and then managed locally with typically little transparency on the actual amount of resources received by each local area. This moral hazard problem may increase incentives for local administrators to extract rents from the funds received. …growing evidence suggests that illegal practices and rent seeking are still often associated with the receipt of transfers from a central government. …we investigate the relationship between financial transfers from a central level of government to local administrations and the coincident occurrence of white collar crimes at the same local level drawing from the case of EU funding to Southern Italy. …The South of Italy has been one of the largest recipients of EU funds: in the most recent programming period it received 25 billion euro out of the 35 billion total allocated to Italy and managed at the local level. The empirical analysis exploits a unique administrative dataset of criminal episodes in Italy and matches them to the records of all the transfers from the EU to each single municipality over the period 2007-2014. We find evidence of a significant positive relationship between EU funds and the occurrence of corruption and fraudulent behaviors in the recipient municipality in the same year. …the robustness analysis we performed provided evidence that the correlation between transfers and corruption that we estimate is likely not just spurious or due to confounding effects

As far as I’m concerned, these results belong in the “least surprising” category. Of course you get more corruption when government gets bigger.

Now let’s look at another study. A few years ago, academic scholars produced even more compelling research from Brazil.

The paper studies the effect of additional government revenues on political corruption and on the quality of politicians, both with theory and data. The theory is based on a version of the career concerns model of political agency with endogenous entry of political candidates. The evidence refers to municipalities in Brazil, where federal transfers to municipal governments change exogenously according to given population thresholds. We exploit a regression discontinuity design to test the implications of the theory and identify the causal effect of larger federal transfers on political corruption and the observed features of political candidates at the municipal level. In accordance with the predictions of the theory, we find that larger transfers increase political corruption and reduce the quality of candidates for mayor. …The empirical findings accord well with the implications of the theory. Specifically, an (exogenous) increase in federal transfers by 10% raises the incidence of a broad measure of corruption by 12 percentage points (about 17% with respect to the average incidence), and the incidence of a more restrictive measure—including only severe violation episodes—by 10.1 percentage points (about 24%).

By the way, this persuasive research isn’t just an argument for smaller government and fewer transfers.

It’s also why foreign aid generally has harmful effects on recipient countries. Handouts line the pockets of the political elite and enable a bigger burden of government.

It’s also one of the reasons why I’ve referred to the International Monetary Fund as a “dumpster fire.” That bureaucracy leverages its money (the U.S. is the biggest backer) to encourage higher tax burdens and more redistribution in countries that already are suffering from too much bad policy.

The two studies we’ve reviewed today are simply an exclamation point.

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Last week, I shared a graph showing that there are more guns than people in the United States, and I wrote that it was the “most enjoyable” chart of the year, mostly because it gets my leftist friends so agitated.

But I’m more likely to share gloomy visuals.

  • The “most depressing” chart about Denmark, which shows a majority of the population lives off government.
  • A “very depressing” chart about the United States, which shows how big business profits from cronyism.
  • The “most depressing” chart about Japan, which shows that the tax burden has nearly doubled since 1965.

Now it’s time to add to that list. There’s a website called “Our World in Data,” which is a great resource if you’re a policy wonk who likes numbers. But some numbers are quite depressing.

For instance,if you peruse the “public spending” page, you’ll find a chart showing the dramatic expansion of redistribution spending as a share of economic output.

These numbers are very similar to the table I shared from Vito Tanzi back in 2013, which isn’t surprising since Professor Peter Lindert is the underlying source for both sets of data.

While the above chart is depressing to a libertarian, it’s nonetheless instructive because it confirms my argument that the western world became rich when government was very small and redistribution was tiny or even nonexistent.

For instance, nations in North America and Western Europe largely made the transition from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity during the “golden century” between the Napoleanic wars and World War I. And that was a period when redistribution spending basically didn’t exist and most nations didn’t even have income taxes (the U.S. didn’t make that mistake until 1913).

And even as recently as 1960, welfare states were very small compared to their current size. Indeed, redistribution spending in western nations averaged only about 10 percent of economic output, about half the size of today’s supposedly miserly American welfare state.

These points are important because some folks on the left misinterpret Wagner’s Law and actually try to argue that bigger government is good for growth.

P.S. South Korea has been a great success story for the past five decades, but that redistribution trendline is very worrisome.

P.P.S. The trendline for Greece helps to explain why that nation is bankrupt.

P.P.P.S. The chart shows that Canada is better than the United States, though that may not last since Canada’s current Prime Minister is seeking to undermine his nation’s competitive advantage.

P.P.P.P.S. While fiscal trends in the western world have been unfavorable, that bad news has been offset by positive trends for trade liberalization. Whether we see a big step backwards because of Trump remains to be seen.

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I’m a big believer that some images do a great job of capturing an issue.

Speaking of socialism, let’s look at some more images that reveal the essence of that bankrupt ideology.

Here’s a cartoon from Libertarian Reddit that does a great job of showing the real difference between capitalism and socialism.

Perfectly stated. Reminds me of the insights offered by Thatcher and Churchill.

Sadly, if you provide the statists with real-world evidence, many of them still prefer the world in top-right frame rather than the bottom-right frame.

Heck, the IMF actually publishes studies supporting equal levels of poverty.

As you might suspect, there are plenty of socialists who enjoy the benefits of capitalism while urging statism for everyone else. Think, for instance, about all the leftists who use tax havens.

Or this hipster millennial.

Maybe he could have a ménage à trois with Pajama Boy and Julia? Though only if everyone is guaranteed equal levels of disappointment.

Next is a helpful reminder from Bernie Sanders about the very thin line between socialism and communism.

Though I’m not sure there’s a meaningful difference.

Last but not least, this gem from Libertarian Reddit appealed to my juvenile sense of humor.

Basically the same message you find in the last item in this collection of socialism humor.

P.S. Here’s my two-part series (here and here) on the bizarre allure of socialism.

P.P.S. For additional examples of socialism humor, click here, here, here, here, and here.

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According to research from the Bank for International Settlements, the long-term fiscal outlook for the United Kingdom is very grim. The data generated by the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development isn’t quite as dour, but those bureaucracies also show very significant long-run fiscal challenges.

The problem in the U.K. is the same as the problem in the United States. And France. And Germany. And Japan. Simply stated, the welfare state is becoming an ever-larger burden in large part because the elderly population is expanding in developed nations compared to the number of potential taxpayers.

The good news, as noted in this BBC story, is that some folks in the United Kingdom realize this is bad news for young people.

Lord Willetts…said the contract between young and old had “broken down”. Without action, young people would become “increasingly angry”.

The bad news is that these folks apparently think you solve the problem of young-to-old redistribution by adding a layer of old-to-young redistribution.

I’m not joking.

A £10,000 payment should be given to the young and pensioners taxed more, a new report into inter-generational fairness in the UK suggests. The research and policy organisation, the Resolution Foundation, says these radical moves are needed to better fund the NHS and maintain social cohesion. …The foundation’s Intergenerational Commission report calls for an NHS “levy” of £2.3bn paid for by increased national insurance contributions by those over the age of 65. It says that all young people should receive a £10,000 windfall at the age of 25 to help pay for a deposit on a home, start a business or improve their education or skills.

To be fair, proponents of this idea are correct about young people getting a bad deal from the current system. And they are right about older people getting more from government than they pay to government.

“There’s no avoiding the pressures for more spending on healthcare and social care, the question is how we meet those pressures,” he replied. “Extra borrowing is unfair on the younger generation. “Extra taxes on the working population – when especially younger workers have not really seen any increase in their pay – will be very unfair. “It so happens that the older people who will benefit most from extra spending on health care have got some resources, so at low rates, it’s reasonable to expect them to contribute.

But I fundamentally disagree with their conclusion that bigger government is the answer.

“It is better than any of the alternatives.”

For what it’s worth, what’s happening in the U.K. is an example of Mitchell’s Law. Young people are getting a bad deal because of programs created by government.

But rather than proposing to unwind the programs that caused the problem, the folks at the Resolution Foundation have decided that creating additional programs financed by additional taxes is the way to go.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that the group also has other bad ideas.

The report calls for the scrapping of the council tax system, replacing it with a new property tax which would raise more money from wealthier homeowners. The proceeds would be used to halve stamp duty for first-time buyers.

Let’s close by looking at some interesting data about the attitudes of the young.

…a poll undertaken for the Intergenerational Commission also suggested people were more pessimistic in Britain about the chances of the next generation having “better lives” than the one before it – compared with almost any other country.

Here’s the chart showing data for the U.K. and several other nations.

Congratulations to France for having the most pessimistic young people (maybe this is why so many of them would move to the U.S. if they had the chance).

And I think the South Koreans are too glum and the Chinese are too optimistic. The Italians also are too upbeat. But otherwise these numbers generally make sense.

P.S. I was very pessimistic about the U.K. in 2012, but had a more upbeat assessment last summer. Now the pendulum has now swung back in the other direction.

P.P.S. If the Brits screw up Brexit, I’ll be even more downbeat about the nation’s outlook.

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I’m conflicted.

I’ve repeatedly expressed skepticism about the idea of governments providing a “basic income” because I fear the work ethic will (further) erode if people automatically receive a substantial chunk of money.

Moreover, I also fear that a basic income will lead to an ever-expanding burden of government spending, particularly once net beneficiaries figure out they can vote themselves more money.

Given these concerns, I should be happy about this report from the New York Times.

For more than a year, Finland has been testing the proposition that the best way to lift economic fortunes may be the simplest: Hand out money without rules or restrictions on how people use it. The experiment with so-called universal basic income has captured global attention… Now, the experiment is ending. The Finnish government has opted not to continue financing it past this year, a reflection of public discomfort with the idea of dispensing government largess free of requirements that its recipients seek work. …the Finnish government’s decision to halt the experiment at the end of 2018 highlights a challenge to basic income’s very conception. Many people in Finland — and in other lands — chafe at the idea of handing out cash without requiring that people work. …Finland’s goals have been modest and pragmatic. The government hoped that basic income would send more people into the job market to revive a weak economy. …The basic income trial, which started at the beginning of 2017 and will continue until the end of this year, has given monthly stipends of 560 euros ($685) to a random sample of 2,000 unemployed people aged 25 to 58. Recipients have been free to do as they wished… The Finnish government was keen to see what people would do under such circumstances. The data is expected to be released next year, giving academics a chance to analyze what has come of the experiment.

The reason I’m conflicted is that the current welfare state – both in the United States and other developed nations – is bad for both taxpayers and poor people.

So I like the idea of experimentation. There has to be a better way of alleviating genuine suffering without trapping poor people in dependency or punishing taxpayers.

Indeed, one of my arguments for radical decentralization in America is that states will try different approaches and we’ll have a much better chance of learning what works and what doesn’t.

And maybe we’ll learn that there are some benefits of providing a basic income. But, as reported by the U.K.-based Guardian, it’s unclear whether the Finnish experiment lasted long enough or was comprehensive enough to teach us anything.

The scheme – aimed primarily at seeing whether a guaranteed income might incentivise people to take up paid work by smoothing out gaps in the welfare system…it was hoped it would shed light on policy issues such as whether an unconditional payment might reduce anxiety among recipients and allow the government to simplify a complex social security system… Olli Kangas, an expert involved in the trial, told the Finnish public broadcaster YLE: “Two years is too short a period to be able to draw extensive conclusions from such a big experiment. We should have had extra time and more money to achieve reliable results.”

I will be interested to see whether researchers generate any conclusions when they look at the two years of data from the Finnish experiment.

That being said, there already has been some research that underscores my concerns.

The OECD is not my favorite international bureaucracy, but its recent survey on Finland included some sobering estimates on the cost of a nationwide basic income.

In a basic income scenario, a lump-sum benefit replaces a number of existing benefits, financed by increasing income taxation by nearly 30% or around 4% of GDP. …the basic income requires significant increases to income taxation. …Financing a basic income at a meaningful level thus would require considerable additional tax revenue, and heavier taxation of income would at least partially undo any improvement in work incentives.

And in a report on basic income last year, the OECD poured more cold water on the idea.

…large tax-revenue changes are needed to finance a BI at meaningful levels, and tax reforms would therefore need to be an integral part of budget-neutral BI proposals. …abolishing tax-free allowances and making BI taxable means that everybody would pay income tax on the BI, and on all their other income. Tax burdens would go up for most people as a result, further increasing tax-to-GDP ratios that are currently already at a record-high in the OECD area. …There are also major concerns about unintended consequences of a BI. An especially prominent one is that unconditional income support would reduce the necessity for paid work.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see how work incentives aren’t adversely affected. Why go through the hassle of being employed when you can sit at home and play computer games all day?

P.S. Given the option of voting on a basic income in 2016, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected the notion.

P.P.S. Former Vice President Joe Biden actually agrees with me about one of the downsides of basic income.

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