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Archive for the ‘Redistribution’ Category

Imagine that we’re in a parallel universe and that you’re the lookout on the Titanic. But in this make-believe world, you have all sorts of fancy radar that allows you to detect icebergs with lots of advance notice. Furthermore, imagine that you detect danger and give lots of warning to the Captain and other officers.

How would you feel if they then decided to ignore your warnings and continued on their course to disaster? You’d probably tear your hair out in frustration.

And that’s a pretty good description of how I feel about the easy-to-predict, visible-to-the-naked-eye, baked-in-the-cake, bound-to-happen fiscal crisis that will occur because of the combination of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

It’s happening in the United States. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in Asia. Heck, this is a worldwide problem.

Simply stated, welfare states were created back when everyone assumed that there would always be a “population pyramid,” which means relatively few old people (who collect a lot of money from entitlement programs) at the top, plenty of workers (also known as taxpayers) in the middle, and lots of children (i.e., future taxpayers) at the bottom.

In that world, a modest-sized welfare state isn’t a good idea, but at least it is mathematically sustainable.

Today, by contrast, such a welfare state is a problem because we’re living longer and having fewer children.

And in the future, that kind of welfare state is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis because demographic trends will be even less favorable. To be blunt, there won’t be enough people pulling the wagon compared to the mass of people riding in the wagon.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s some additional data on this global problem. We’ll start with this look at how the population pyramid is becoming a population cylinder. The key thing to notice is the growth of the over-65 cohort.

And here’s a different way of looking at the same data, but stretching out to 2100.

I didn’t add a red line at age 65, but it’s easy to see that the number of older people will dramatically increase without a concomitant increase in the number of working-age people who are expected to pay the taxes to finance pensions and health care.

So what’s all this mean? Here’s a sobering thought from Prospect.

The ageing populations of the advanced economies and the larger emerging ones combines with past falls in the birth rate to mean that the share of total world population who are of prime working age has been falling since 2012. After a four-decade rise, the trend has reversed with that fall projected to last throughout the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s. A slower-growing global workforce will be a big challenge for the global economy.

A “big challenge” may win the prize for understatement.

Bloomberg has a column on the implications of this massive demographic shift. Notice the data on the number of workers per retiree in various nations.

Rising dependency ratios — or the number of retirees per employed worker — provide one useful metric. In 1970, in the U.S., there were 5.3 workers for every retired person. By 2010 this had fallen to 4.5, and it’s expected to decline to 2.6 by 2050. In Germany, the number of workers per retiree will decrease to 1.6 in 2050, down from 4.1 in 1970. In Japan, the oldest society to have ever existed, the ratio will decrease to 1.2 in 2050, from 8.5 in 1970. Even as spending commitments grow, in other words, there will be fewer and fewer productive adults around to fund them.

The bottom line is that there are enormous unfunded liabilities.

Arnaud Mares of Morgan Stanley analyzed national solvency, or the difference between actual and potential government revenue, on one hand, and existing debt levels and future commitments on the other. The study found that by this measure the net worth of the U.S. was negative 800 percent of its GDP; that is, its future tax revenue was less than committed obligations by an amount equivalent to eight times the value of all goods and services America produces in a year. The net worth of European countries ranged from about negative 250 percent (Italy) to negative 1,800 percent (Greece). For Germany, France and the U.K., the approximate figures were negative 500 percent, negative 600 percent and negative 1,000 percent of GDP.

Wow, it’s depressing that the long-run outlook for the United States is worse than it is for some of Europe’s most infamous welfare states. Though I guess we shouldn’t be totally surprised since I’ve already shared similarly grim estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’ll close with some (sort of) good news.

Notwithstanding some of the estimates I’ve shared, America actually is in better shape than these other nations. If we enact genuine entitlement reform, ideally sooner rather than later, the long-run numbers dramatically improve because spending and debt no longer would be projected to rise so dramatically (whereas government already is an enormous burden in Europe).

This isn’t idle theory. Policymakers don’t have much control over demographics, but they can reduce the fiscal impact of demographic change by adopting better policy.

To cite the most prominent examples, jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore have very long lifespans and very low birthrates, yet their public finances don’t face nearly as much long-run pressure because they never made the mistake of setting up western-style welfare states.

The solution, therefore, is for America and other nations to copy these successful jurisdictions by replacing tax-and-transfer entitlements with systems based on private savings.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I’m not overflowing with optimism that we’ll get the reforms that are needed with Trump in the White House.

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Most economic policy debates are predictable. Folks on the left urge higher taxes and bigger government while folks on the right advocate lower taxes and smaller government (thanks to “public choice” incentives, many supposedly pro-market politicians don’t follow through on those principles once they’re in office, but that’s a separate issue).

The normal dividing line between right and left disappears, however, when looking at whether the welfare state should be replaced by a “universal basic income” that would provide money to every legal resident of a nation.

There are some compelling arguments in favor of such an idea. Some leftists like the notion of income security for everybody. Some on the right like the fact that there would be no need for massive bureaucracies to oversee the dozens of income redistribution programs that currently exist. And since everyone automatically would get a check, regardless of income, lower-income people seeking a better life no longer would face very high implicit tax rates as they replaced handouts with income.

But there are plenty of libertarians and small-government conservatives who are skeptical. I’m in this group because of my concern that the net result would be bigger government and I don’t trust that the rest of the welfare state would be abolished. Moreover, I worry that universal handouts would erode the work ethic and exacerbate the dependency problem.

And I have an ally of the other side of the ideological spectrum.

Former Vice President Joe Biden…will push back against “Universal Basic Income,”… UBI is a check to every American adult, but Biden thinks that it’s the job that is important, not just the income. In a blog post…timed to the launch of the Joe Biden Institute at the University of Delaware, Biden will quote his father telling him how a job is “about your dignity. It’s about your self-respect. It’s about your place in your community.”

I often don’t agree with Biden, but he’s right on this issue.

Having a job, earning a paycheck, and being self-sufficient are valuable forms of societal or cultural capital.

By contrast, a nation that trades the work ethic for universal handouts is taking a very risky gamble.

Let’s look at what’s been written on this topic.

In an article for the Week, Damon Linker explores the importance of work and the downside of dependency.

…a UBI would not address (and would actually intensify) the worst consequences of joblessness, which are not economic but rather psychological or spiritual. …a person who falls out of the workforce permanently will be prone to depression and other forms of psychological and spiritual degradation. When we say that an employee “earns a living,” it’s not merely a synonym for “receives a regular lump sum of money.” The element of deserving (“earns”) is crucial. …a job can be and often is a significant (even the primary) source of a person’s sense of self-worth. …A job gives a person purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, to engage with the world and interact with fellow citizens in a common endeavor, however modest. And at the end of the week or the month, there’s the satisfaction of having earned, through one’s own efforts, the income that will enable oneself and one’s family to continue to survive and hopefully even thrive.

Dan Nidess, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, opines about the downsides of universal handouts.

At the heart of a functioning democratic society is a social contract built on the independence and equality of individuals. Casually accepting the mass unemployment of a large part of the country and viewing those people as burdens would undermine this social contract, as millions of Americans become dependent on the government and the taxpaying elite. It would also create a structural division of society that would destroy any pretense of equality. …UBI would also weaken American democracy. How long before the well-educated, technocratic elites come to believe the unemployed underclass should no longer have the right to vote? Will the “useless class” react with gratitude for the handout and admiration for the increasingly divergent culture and values of the “productive class”? If Donald Trump’s election, and the elites’ reactions, are any indication, the opposite is likelier. …In the same Harvard commencement speech in which Mr. Zuckerberg called for a basic income, he also spent significant time talking about the need for purpose. But purpose can’t be manufactured, nor can it be given out alongside a government subsidy. It comes from having deep-seated responsibility—to yourself, your family and society as a whole.

An article in the American Interest echoes this point.

…work, for most people, isn’t just a means of making money—it is a source of dignity and meaning and a central part of the social compact. Simply opting for accelerated creative destruction while deliberately warehousing the part of the population that cannot participate might work as a theoretical exercise, but it does not mesh with the wants and desires and aspirations of human beings. Communities subsisting on UBIs will not be happy or healthy; the spectacle of free public redistribution without any work requirement will breed resentment and distrust.

Writing for National Review, Oren Cass discusses some negative implications of a basic income.

…even if it could work, it should be rejected on principle. A UBI would redefine the relationship between individuals, families, communities, and the state by giving government the role of provider. It would make work optional and render self-reliance moot. An underclass dependent on government handouts would no longer be one of society’s greatest challenges but instead would be recast as one of its proudest achievements. Universal basic income is a logical successor to the worst public policies and social movements of the past 50 years. These have taken hold not just through massive government spending but through fundamental cultural changes that have absolved people of responsibility for themselves and one another, supported destructive conduct while discouraging work, and thereby eroded the foundational institutions of family and community that give shape to society. …Those who work to provide for themselves and their families know they are playing a critical and worthwhile role, which imbues the work with meaning no matter how unfulfilling the particular task may be. As the term “breadwinner” suggests, the abstractions of a market economy do not obscure the way essentials are earned. A UBI would undermine all this: Work by definition would become optional, and consumption would become an entitlement disconnected from production. Stripped of its essential role as the way to earn a living, work would instead be an activity one engaged in by choice, for enjoyment, or to afford nicer things. …Work gives not only meaning but also structure and stability to life. It provides both socialization and a source of social capital. It helps establish for the next generation virtues such as responsibility, perseverance, and industriousness. …there is simply no substitute for stepping onto the first rung. A UBI might provide the same income as such a job, but it can offer none of the experience, skills, or socialization.

Tyler Cowen expresses reservations in his Bloomberg column.

I used to think that it might be a good idea for the federal government to guarantee everyone a universal basic income, to combat income inequality, slow wage growth, advancing automation and fragmented welfare programs. Now I’m more skeptical. …I see merit in tying welfare to work as a symbolic commitment to certain American ideals. It’s as if we are putting up a big sign saying, “America is about coming here to work and get ahead!” Over time, that changes the mix of immigrants the U.S. attracts and shapes the culture for the better. I wonder whether this cultural and symbolic commitment to work might do greater humanitarian good than a transfer policy that is on the surface more generous. …It’s fair to ask whether a universal income guarantee would be affordable, but my doubts run deeper than that. If two able-bodied people live next door to each other, and one works and the other chooses to live off universal basic income checks, albeit at a lower standard of living, I wonder if this disparity can last. One neighbor feels like she is paying for the other, and indeed she is.

In a piece for the City Journal, Aaron Renn also comments on the impact of a basic income on national character. He starts by observing that guaranteed incomes haven’t produced good outcomes for Indian tribes.

…consider the poor results from annual per-capita payments of casino revenues to American Indian tribes (not discussed in the book). Some tribes enjoy a very high “basic income”—sometimes as high as $100,000 per year— in the form of these payments. But as the Economist reports, “as payment grows more Native Americans have stopped working and fallen into a drug and alcohol abuse lifestyle that has carried them back into poverty.”

And he fears the results would be equally bad for the overall population.

Another major problem with the basic-income thesis is that its intrinsic vision of society is morally problematic, even perverse: individuals are entitled to a share of social prosperity but have no obligation to contribute anything to it. In the authors’ vision, it is perfectly acceptable for able-bodied young men to collect a perpetual income while living in mom’s basement or a small apartment and doing nothing but play video games and watch Internet porn.

Jared Dillian also looks at the issue of idleness in a column for Bloomberg.

I do not like the idea of a universal basic income. Its advocates fundamentally misunderstand human nature. What they do not realize about human beings is that for the vast majority of them, a subsistence level of income is enough — and those advocates are blind to the corrosive effects that widespread idleness would have on society. If you give people money for doing nothing, they will probably do nothing. …A huge controlled experiment on basic income has already been run — in Saudi Arabia, where most of the population enjoys the dividends of the country’s oil wealth. Saudi Arabia has found that idleness leads to more political extremism, not less. We have a smaller version of that controlled experiment here in the U.S. — for example, the able-bodied workers who have obtained Social Security Disability Insurance payments and are willing to stay at home for a piddling amount of money. …the overarching principle is that people need work that is worthwhile, for practical and psychological reasons. If we hand out cash to anyone who can fog a mirror, I figure we are about two generations away from revolution.

By the way, it’s not just American Indians and Saudi Arabians that are getting bad results with universal handouts.

Finland has been conducting an experiment and the early results don’t look promising.

The bottom line is that our current welfare system is a dysfunctional mess. It’s bad for taxpayers and recipients.

Replacing it with a basic income probably would make the system simpler, but at a potentially very high cost in terms of cultural capital.

That’s why I view federalism as a much better approach. Get Washington out of the redistribution racket and allow states to compete and innovate as they find ways to help the less fortunate without trapping them in dependency.

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Let’s consider some good news about America.

Some folks on the left like to claim that the middle class is shrinking and that therefore we need bigger government and more redistribution to protect these Americans from falling into poverty.

Well, the first half of that statement is true. The middle class is becoming smaller. But here’s the good news. As I noted in 2015 when sharing some data from Pew, the middle class is shrinking because more and more households are earning six-figure incomes.

Now we have more confirmation. Courtesy of Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute, here’s a nice chart based on data from the Census Bureau’s new report on income and poverty in the United States.

Want to feel even better?

In a column for CNBC, Professor Daniel Smith of Troy University explains that government data understates the improvements in living standards. He points out that total compensation has increased much faster than wages.

Complaints that the rich are getting richer while the majority have hit a brick wall in wage growth have led to calls to impose regulations and taxes aimed at creating a “fair” economy. This mantra, however, is wrought with holes and erroneous interpretation of the data… Over the last few decades, employees have been receiving an increasingly larger portion of their overall compensation in the form of benefits such as health care, paid vacation time, hour flexibility, improved work environments and even daycare. …Total compensation, which adds these benefits to wages and salaries, shows that earnings have actually increased more than 45 percent since 1964.

And he notes that income gains are understated if measured against the PCE index rather than the consumer price index.

Furthermore, “purchasing power,” the amount of stuff people can buy with each dollar, has changed dramatically… CPI is notorious for overstating inflation, and thus understating the growth of real wages received by workers. Adjusting the data with the more appropriate Personal Consumption Expenditure index brings the growth in average hourly wages from 5.58 percent to more than 35 percent and the growth in total compensation of employees from more than 45 percent to more than 87 percent.

The bottom line is we’re able to buy more and better for less work.

But even that index fails to grasp the drastic increase in what workers get for their wages. …100.5 hours of work was required to purchase a washing machine in 1959 compared to just 23.3 hours of work (for the average worker) in 2013. Purchasing a TV demanded an astounding 127.8 hours of work in 1959, whereas a worker in 2013 could purchase one with only 20.7 hours of work. Moreover, the improved quality of these goods over the past few decades is staggering. …Today’s iPhones and other smart-phone models seem like a different species from their predecessors… We’ve seen the same progress in knee-replacement surgeries, computers, the Internet, vacuum cleaners, and other technologies we’ve come to rely on.

Professor Smith wrote this piece back in 2014, but these arguments apply just as well today as they did back then.

Though I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. There are very worrisome trends in our economy, especially increased dependency and reduced labor force participation.

So if you prefer to look at the glass as being half empty, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American University authored an article that is very pessimistic assessment about recent trends.

It turns out that the year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone of sorts for our nation. For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly. …it should be painfully obvious that the U.S. economy has been in the grip of deep dysfunction since the dawn of the new century. …It took America six and a half years—until mid-2014—to get back to its late 2007 per capita production levels. And in late 2016, per capita output was just 4 percent higher than in late 2007—nine years earlier. By this reckoning, the American economy looks to have suffered something close to a lost decade. …Between 2000 and 2016, per capita growth in America has averaged less than 1 percent a year. To state it plainly: With postwar, pre-21st-century rates for the years 20002016, per capita GDP in America would be more than 20 percent higher than it is today. …If 21st-century America’s GDP trends have been disappointing, labor-force trends have been utterly dismal. Work rates have fallen off a cliff since the year 2000 and are at their lowest levels in decades.

I don’t disagree with any of this. Growth has been weak this century.

Which is hardly a surprise since we’ve seen an erosion of economic liberty (thanks Bush and Obama!).

But I also want to keep things in perspective. Weak growth is better than no growth. Our living standards are increasing, even if they could – and should – be rising at a faster clip.

So let me swing back to the Pollyanna side by sharing a chart which ostensibly is bad news because it shows rising inequality. But I view it as good news because it shows that all of us are at least 40 percent richer – in real terms – than we were back around 1980.

By the way, Thomas Sowell has pointed out that higher-income households tend to do better because they have more people working, while lower-income households feature lots of dependency. Moreover, if Professor Smith and others are right, the increase in living standards is far greater than what this chart shows anyhow. But even if you accept this data at face value, we are all getting richer over time.

Yes, growth rates should be faster and incomes should be climbing more rapidly. Especially at the bottom. Whether you look at global data or country-specific data, that’s an argument for free markets and small government.

As I wrote last year, we don’t need perfect policy to get more prosperity. Just give the private sector some breathing room.

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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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