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Archive for the ‘Social Capital’ Category

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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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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Statists occasionally get very angry about some of my views.

My support for “tax havens” periodically seems to touch a raw nerve, for instance, though I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised since some people are so crazy that they have even urged military action against these low-tax jurisdictions.

I also get some angry responses when I praise Ronald Reagan’s achievements. I’ve even had a few leftists get all agitated simply because I occasionally share a hypothetical poll from 2013 showing that Reagan would beat Obama in a landslide.

But what really gets these folks angry is when I argue that recipients of welfare and redistribution should feel shame and embarrassment. As far as they’re concerned, I’m being a heartless jerk who wants to inflict emotional pain on vulnerable people.

Though, to be fair, their anger usually dissipates when I explain that my real goal is to protect people from long-term dependency on government. And it’s also hard for them to stay agitated when I point out that I’m basically making the same argument as Franklin Roosevelt, who famously warned about welfare being “a narcotic” and “a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

In other words, I don’t like the welfare state because I care about both the best interests of taxpayers and also about the best interests of poor people. And this is why I repeatedly share data showing how American was making impressive progress against poverty before there was a welfare state. But once the federal government declared a “War on Poverty,” the poverty rate stopped falling.

But that’s only part of my argument. I also think there are very worrisome implications for overall society when people start thinking that they have a “right” to welfare and redistribution. At the risk of sounding like a cranky libertarian, I fear that any nation will face a very grim future once too many people lose the ethic of self-reliance and think it’s morally and ethically acceptable to be moochers.

Indeed, my theory of “Goldfish Government” is based in part on what happens when a sufficient number of voters think it’s okay to steal from their neighbors, using government as a middleman. Short-sighted politicians play a big role in this self-destructive process, of course, along with unfavorable demographic changes.

And when people want examples, I just point to nations such as Greece, Italy, and France. Or states such as California and Illinois.

At this stage, a clever leftist will usually interject and argue I’m being unfair. They’ll say that Nordic nations such as Denmark and Sweden are proof that a big welfare state is compatible with a prosperous and stable society.

Au contraire, as our French friends might say. Yes, the Nordic nations may be relatively successful big-government countries, but there are three very important things to understand.

  1. The Nordic nations became comparatively rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when economic policy was dominated by free markets and small government.
  2. The adoption of high taxes and big welfare states (particularly an explosion in the burden of government spending starting in the 1960s) weakened economic performance.
  3. In recent years, Nordic nations have sought to undo the damage of big government with pro-market reforms and limits on the fiscal burden of government.

But let’s specifically focus today on whether the Nordic nations are somehow an exception to the rule that welfare and redistribution have a pernicious impact on a society. In other words, does welfare in nations such as Denmark and Sweden undermine “social capital”? Is there a negative impact on the work ethic and spirit of self-reliance?

Fortunately, we have some very good data from a new, must-read book by Nima Sanandaji, who grew up in Sweden. Entitled Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism, Nima’s book is a comprehensive analysis of public policy in that part of the world, both what’s good and what needs improvement.

One of his 11 chapters is about “The Generous Welfare Trap” and it’s filled with very valuable information about the human and societal cost of the welfare state.

Though I can’t resist pointing out that he starts his analysis by citing President Roosevelt.

Franklin D. Roosevelt…was concerned that the institution he was fostering…might destroy the spirit of self-reliance. Two years into his presidency, he held a speech to Congress…the president warned that…”continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” …In today’s political climate, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s view on public benefits would seem quite harsh.

Nima then looks at whether the Nordic nations somehow might be proof that FDR was wrong.

Yet there has been a persistent conviction among the modern proponents of welfare states that it is indeed-somehow-possible to create stable systems with generous benefits and high taxes. The main line of reasoning is based on the Nordics. The welfare states in this part of the world seem to, at least at first glance, succeed in providing extensive services and generous cash benefits without eroding personal responsibility. If generous welfare works in Sweden and Denmark, why not also in the rest of the world?

The problem, as Nima points out, is that these policies don’t work in his part of the world.

And not just because of the fiscal burden. His main point is that the welfare state is weakening people’s integrity.

…the World Values Survey shows that erosion of norms is very much a thing in the Nordics. In the beginning of the 1980s, 82 percent of Swedes and 80 percent of Norwegians agreed with the statement “Claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled is never justifiable.” …However, as the population adjusted their behavior to new economic policies, benefit morale dropped steadily. In the survey conducted between 2005 and 2008, only 56 percent of Norwegians and 61 percent of Swedes believed  that it was never right to claim benefits to which they were not entitled. The survey conducted between 2010 and 2015 only included Sweden out of the Nordic countries. It found that benefit morale had continued to fall, as merely 55 percent of Swedes answered that it was never right to overuse benefits. …Over time even the Nordic people have changed their attitudes as social democratic policies have made it less rewarding to work hard and more rewarding to live off the government.

By the way, at the risk of nit-picking, I would have advised Nima to use the term “benefit morality” rather than “benefit morale.” Though I assume almost all readers will understand the point he’s making.

Returning to our topic, Nima also cites some scholarly research that basically echoes my “Theorem of Societal Collapse.”

Martin Halla, Mario Lackner, and Friedrich G. Schneider performed an empirical analysis of the dynamics of the welfare state. They explained that…”the disincentive effects may materialize only with considerable time lags.” ..However, after some time the expansion of welfare programs leads to a deterioration of benefit morale. The three researchers concluded that “the welfare state destroys its own (economic) foundation and we have to approve the hypothesis of the self-destructive welfare state.”

The bottom line, he explains, is that the Nordic nations have been the best possible example of how a welfare state can operate.

But even in these nations, the narcotic of government dependency has slowly but surely done its damage.

Although Nordic welfare states seemed initially able to avoid this moral hazard, today we know beyond doubt that this was not the case. Even the northern European welfare states-founded in societies with exceptionally strong working ethics and emphasis on individual responsibility-have with time caught up to Roosevelt’s harsh predictions.

The good news is that Nordic nations are trying to undo the damage of the welfare state. Many governments in the region are scaling back the generosity of handouts and trying to restore the work ethic.

I don’t want to give away too much information. You need to buy his book to learn more. And the other 10 chapters are just as enlightening.

I’ll close by simply observing that Calvin Coolidge (as quoted by Ronald Reagan) understood today’s topic way back in the 1920s.

P.S. I’ve also cited Nima’s great work on how people of Nordic descent in America are much more productive than their cousins who remained in Scandinavia, as well as his work showing that Nordic nations originally became rich because of Hong Kong-style economic policy. And I’ve also shared some of his fascinating research on the policies that generate super-entrepreneurs.

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I remember feeling like an outlier a few years ago when so many people were waxing rhapsodic about a glowing economic outlook for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. These so-called BRICS nations were enjoying some decent growth at the time, but I was not optimistic about their long-run prospects because they all suffered from too much statism according to the rankings from Economic Freedom of the World.

Well, the long run has arrived, at least to some degree. All of these nations have hit some serious speed bumps.

I’ve previously written about the economic challenges now being faced by China and South Africa. Today, let’s focus on Brazil.

Here’s some very dismal but accurate analysis from an article in this week’s Economist (h/t: Tyler Cowen).

By the end of 2016 Brazil’s economy may be 8% smaller than it was in the first quarter of 2014, when it last saw growth; GDP per person could be down by a fifth since its peak in 2010, which is not as bad as the situation in Greece, but not far off. Two ratings agencies have demoted Brazilian debt to junk status. Joaquim Levy, who was appointed as finance minister last January with a mandate to cut the deficit, quit in December. Any country where it is hard to tell the difference between the inflation rate—which has edged into double digits—and the president’s approval rating—currently 12%, having dipped into single figures—has serious problems.

And why is Brazil’s economy is so much trouble?

Two words: Excessive government.

…the federal constitution of 1988… This 70,000-word doorstop of a document crams in as many social, political and economic rights as its drafters could dream up, some of them highly specific: a 44-hour working week; a retirement age of 65 for men and 60 for women. The “purchasing power” of benefits “shall be preserved”, it proclaims, creating a powerful ratchet on public spending. Since the constitution’s enactment, federal outlays have nearly doubled to 18% of GDP; total public spending is over 40%. Some 90% of the federal budget is ring-fenced either by the constitution or by legislation. Constitutionally protected pensions alone now swallow 11.6% of GDP, a higher proportion than in Japan, whose citizens are a great deal older. …government expenditure as a share of output rose in 2015. …Taxes already consume 36% of GDP, up from a quarter in 1991.

Ugh, what a grim set of numbers. Moreover, the pension system is terrible, as we discussed a few months ago.

And here’s some additional analysis from last week’s issue, which also highlights the negative impact of too much government.

Brazil faces political and economic disaster. …Ms Rousseff and her left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) have made a bad situation much worse. During her first term, in 2011-14, she spent extravagantly and unwisely on higher pensions.. The minimum benefit is the same as the minimum wage, which has risen by nearly 90% in real terms over the past decade. Women typically retire when they are 50 and men stop work at 55, nearly a decade earlier than the average in rich countries… A typical manufacturing firm spends 2,600 hours a year complying with the country’s ungainly tax code; the Latin American average is 356. Labour laws modelled on those of Mussolini make it expensive for firms to fire even incompetent employees. ….Because it is so hard to reform, Brazil’s public sector rivals European welfare states for size but emerging ones for inefficiency. Long a drain on economic vitality, Brazil’s overbearing state is now a chief cause of the fiscal crisis.

All this sounds very grim, but I’m going to argue that it’s even worse than it sounds.

In part, the problems are similar to what is found in so many nations facing economic challenges.

First, government is growing faster than the private sector. The fact that government spending now consumes twice as much of the economy’s output today as it did back in 1988 means that politicians have been repeatedly (and vigorously!) violating my Golden Rule.

Second, there’s too much government intervention. A nation that models any of its policies on Mussolini-style fascism obviously is making a big mistake since the net result is an economy burdened by corrupt cronyism (sadly, a common problem in Latin America).

But there’s another reason to be down on Brazil, and it is far more discouraging.

Third, the social capital of the country has been eroded. Simply stated, there are too many people (as data from the 2014 election reveal) who view government as a vehicle for personal (and unearned) enrichment.

And when this third problem develops, it’s all but certain that a nation is doomed. After all, many nations have reversed bad fiscal policy. And many nations have reduced government intervention. But fixing the culture of a people is like putting toothpaste back in a tube.

Indeed, I’m going to augment my list of pithy adages. In addition to Mitchell’s Golden Rule and Mitchell’s Law, we not have Mitchell’s Theorem of Societal Collapse.

Like my other adages, I’m not pretending there’s any original insight. In this case, I’ve simply come up with a different way of saying the line attributed (erroneously, from what I can tell) to either Benjamin Franklin or Alexis de Tocqueville: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. ”

P.S. I’m worried about the degree to which America has traveled down the path toward societal decay, but I don’t think we’ve yet reached a tipping point.

P.P.S. While I’m not a fan of Brazilian economic policy, I actually defended that nation when Hillary Clinton applauded Brazil for being more statist than it actually is.

P.P.P.S. Being less statist than Hillary is not exactly something to brag about, so I will note that Brazil deserves credit for moving in the right direction on gun rights and also having some semi-honest left-wing politicians.

P.P.P.P.S. Let’s end, however, with some bad news. Recall from above that Brazil has a very statist constitution. Well, it’s always possible to make a bad thing even worse. And that’s what some Brazilian politicians are trying to do with a proposal to have government somehow create a “right to happiness.”

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