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Archive for the ‘Statism’ Category

I’ve always been puzzled by those who criticize capitalism (“it’s unfair!” and “it’s coercive!”) and urge its overthrow or replacement.

I actually agree with them that markets can be harsh, especially in the short run (think of the damage to the typewriter industry when personal computers exploded on the scene).

But the critics are unable to suggest a successful alternative to capitalism.

This is why I keep reissuing my challenge for them to identify a single nation that has ever become rich because of big government.

Needless to say, my left-wing friends have never provided an answer.

(Some of them say the Nordic nations and other countries in Western Europe are relatively rich, and that’s true, but I point out that those jurisdictions became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when government was very small.)

By contrast, we have lots of evidence that modern prosperity is the result of free markets.

And so long as we give capitalism enough breathing room to function, we’ll get even more prosperity in the future.

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, in a column for Bloomberg, debunks the notion that capitalism is failing.

Use of the term “late capitalism” has exploded during the past decade… Capitalism may have once delivered broad prosperity, the critics argue, but now the system serves to entrench the elite. …Now is an odd time to argue that capitalism is broken. Only 35 U.S. workers out of every 1,000 are looking for jobs but unable to find them — the unemployment rate is lower than it has been in a half-century. The rate at which people in their prime working years hold jobs is higher than it has been in over a decade. …The level of inequality is high, but this is an odd decade to bemoan its rise. …from the beginning of the Great Recession, when criticism of capitalism became much more common, to 2016 (the last year data are available), inequality actually decreased by 7 percent.

Here’s the part of the column that is most interesting.

…critics of modern capitalism seem to be confused about the market’s ability to distribute benefits. …In a 2004 paper, the economist and Nobel laureate William Nordhaus concluded that “most of the benefits of technological change are passed on to consumers,” not the innovators themselves. Using data from 1948–2001, his model suggests that innovators capture only 2.2 percent of the total social value they create. Applying a back-of-the-envelope calculation using Nordhaus’s result to Bezos suggests he has created $5.4 trillion in value for the rest of society. A team of economists…recently attempted to measure the benefit of several new digital services that are free to consumers. …The typical U.S.-based Facebook user in their study values the social networking site at $42.17 per month. …Because they are free, these services are not well captured in current national income statistics. Brynjolfsson and his coauthors calculate that the benefits from Facebook alone would have added between 0.05 and 0.11 percentage points to the annual growth in U.S. gross domestic product growth starting in 2004. …Capitalism has delivered significant increases in purchasing power for typical households. The phrase “late capitalism” suggests that capitalism is spent and exhausted. It isn’t.

Interestingly, the academic researchers confirmed the insights provided in this video.

Though it is helpful to have some rigorous evidence to confirm how free enterprise has made our lives better.

The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized about the blessings of capitalism.

…deregulation and tax reform unleashed a surge of business investment…which has drawn workers off the sidelines and raised wages. …wages for the bottom 10% of earners over age 25 rose an average 5.9% annually compared to 2.4% during Barack Obama’s second term, according to the latest demographic data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. …Less educated workers have also seen the strongest gains. Wages have risen at a 6.1% annual clip for workers over 25 without a high school degree and 3.9% for those with some college—both about three times faster than during the second Obama term. …Socialism-loving young people are getting the biggest pay raises. Wages have increased on average 5.8% annually for teens, 4.4% for 20 to 24-year-olds and 4.8% for 25 to 34-year-olds during the Trump Presidency. …Forty million fewer people last year lived in households receiving government assistance than in 2016, and the food-stamp rolls have shrunk by 9.5 million over the past three years. Reduced government dependence is a social good far beyond the lower costs to taxpayers. …Between 2016 and 2018 the number of taxpayers earning less than $25,000 declined 5% while increasing 8% for those making between $100,000 to $200,000 and 13.9% for those making more than $200,000, according to IRS data.

Here’s the graphic that accompanied the editorial.

By the way, I always warn never to over-rely on short-term economic data.

Yes, the recent numbers look good, but what if they are – at least in part – the result of a monetary policy-driven bubble?

That wouldn’t be an argument against better tax policy and better regulatory policy, of course, but it might mean some of the gains are illusory (much as the good economic news in 2006 now looks rather hollow considering we now know the country was in the midst of a Fed-created bubble).

This is why I prefer to look at multi-decade comparisons. And when you compare market-oriented nations with statism-oriented countries, it becomes very obvious that capitalism is the only way to deliver broadly shared prosperity.

P.S. Regarding capitalism vs. statism, here’s the best-ever tweet.

P.P.S. And here’s the best-ever counter-tweet.

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I’ve written about some of Elizabeth Warren’s statist proposals, but watching last night’s Democratic debate convinced me that I need to pay more attention to Bernie Sanders’ agenda.

When he ran for president last time, I warned that his platform of $18 trillion of new spending over 10 years would be “very expensive to your wallet.”

This time, “Crazy Bernie” has decided that his 2016 agenda was just a down payment. He now wants nearly $100 trillion of new spending!

Even CNN acknowledges that his platform has a staggering price tag.

…the new spending programs Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed in his presidential campaign would at least double federal spending over the next decade… The Vermont independent’s agenda represents an expansion of government’s cost and size unprecedented since World War II… Sanders’ plan, though all of its costs cannot be precisely quantified, would increase government spending as a share of the economy far more than the New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson or the agenda proposed by any recent Democratic presidential nominee, including liberal George McGovern in 1972, according to a historical analysis shared with CNN by Larry Summers, the former chief White House economic adviser for Barack Obama… Summers said in an interview. “The Sanders spending increase is roughly 2.5 times the size of the New Deal and the estimated fiscal impact of George McGovern’s campaign proposals.

My former colleague Brian Riedl has the most detailed estimates of the new fiscal burdens that Sanders is proposing.

Here’s some of what he wrote last year for City Journal.

All told, Sanders’s current plans would cost as much as $97.5 trillion over the next decade, and total government spending at all levels would surge to as high as 70 percent of gross domestic product. Approximately half of the American workforce would be employed by the government. …his Medicare For All plan would increase federal spending by “somewhere between $30 and $40 trillion over a 10-year period.” He pledges to spend $16.3 trillion on his climate plan. And his proposal to guarantee all Americans a full-time government job paying $15 an hour, with full benefits, is estimated to cost $30.1 trillion. …$3 trillion to forgive all student loans and guarantee free public-college tuition—plus $1.8 trillion to expand Social Security, $2.5 trillion on housing, $1.6 trillion on paid family leave, $1 trillion on infrastructure, $800 billion on general K-12 education spending, and an additional $400 billion on higher public school teacher salaries. …Such spending would far exceed even that of European social democracies. …Sanders’s tax proposals would raise at most $23 trillion over the decade. …Tax rates would soar. Sanders would raise the current 15.3 percent payroll tax to 27.2 percent… Sanders proposes a top federal income-tax rate of 52 percent…plus a 10 percent net investment-income surtax for the wealthy.

By the way, class-warfare taxes won’t pay for all these promises.

Not even close, as you can see from this chart Brian put together.

By the way, the above chart is a static snapshot. In the real world, there’s no way to collect 4.7 percent of GDP (red bar on the left) with confiscatory taxes on the rich.

if Sanders ever had a chance to impose all his class-warfare tax ideas, the economy would tank, so revenues as a share of GDP would decline.

And here’s another one of his visuals, looking at the spending proposals that Democratic candidates are supporting.

Senator Sanders, needless to say, favors all of these proposals.

As Brian noted in his article, the Sanders fiscal agenda is so radical that America would have a bigger burden of government spending than decrepit European welfare states such as Greece, France, and Italy.

To his credit, Bernie acknowledges that all his new spending can’t be financed by class-warfare levies (unlike the serially dishonest Elizabeth Warren).

But the new taxes he proposes would finance only a tiny fraction of his spending agenda. If Washington ever tried to adopt even part of his platform, it inevitably would mean a European-style value-added tax.

P.S. Even if tens of trillions of dollars of revenue magically floated down from Heaven, bigger government would still be bad for the economy since politicians and bureaucrats would be in charge of (mis)allocating a much greater share of labor and capital.

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Last month’s election in the United Kingdom attracted considerable attention, not only because it would decide Brexit, but also because of the potential risk of a hard-left Labour government in the world’s 5th-largest economy.

The British dodged that bullet but the people of Spain are not so fortunate. A new government with a very statist platform has just been formed.

Writing for CapX, Luis Pablo de la Horra explains that Spain now faces a grim future.

The agreement between socialists and populists includes an economic agenda which, if carried out, would have a disastrous impact on the Spanish economy. …the new coalition government intends to repeal the labor-market reform passed by Rajoy’s conservative government in 2012. This reform, which was aimed at introducing flexibility in Spain’s dysfunctional labor market, has crucially contributed to reducing the unemployment rate from 26% in late 2012 to 14% today. In fact, a 2016 report by BBVA Research shows that the labor-market reform prevented the destruction of almost one million jobs between 2012 and 2015. ..Sánchez’s government plans to increase taxes on large corporations… The agreement between Sánchez and Podemos also includes the imposition of rent controls in large cities. …Given that the problem of housing in Spain is related to an insufficient supply of apartments in urban areas, rent controls would only aggravate the situation, reducing the number of dwellings available and pushing up prices in non-rent-controlled areas. …An increase in public spending is also among the plans of the soon-to-be new government of Spain. …Juan Ramón Rallo, professor of Economics at IE Business School, estimates that the increase in public spending planned by Sánchez’s government for this year amounts, in net terms, to 3 percentage points of GDP.

A column by Leonid Bershidsky for Bloomberg also notes the new government’s hard-left agenda.

The formation of the government headed by Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez and including the far-left Podemos group…commits him to a more resolutely leftist agenda than the Socialists would have advanced alone. Among other things, it calls for the repeal of the 2012 labor market reform, which succeeded in driving down unemployment from its peak of 26.3% in February, 2013 to about 14% today. …The coalition also plans to hike income taxes for corporations and high earners, starting with those individuals who make 130,000 euros ($146,000) a year and capital gain taxes. A minimum wage hike to 1,200 euros a month from the current 1,050 euros is planned. The leftist parties also have committed to unlink pensions from life expectancy…an ambitious tax-and-spend program.

By the way, I can’t resist sharing these excerpts from a BBC report on the hypocrisy-drenched leader of hard-left Podemos.

Pablo Iglesias and Irene Montero, the party’s spokeswoman, were accused of hypocrisy for spending €600,000 (£527,000; $700,000) on a house with a swimming pool and guest quarters. Mr Iglesias has previously criticised politicians who live “in villas”. …Some rank-and-file members said it undermined the party’s grassroots credibility. …Mr Iglesias formed Podemos in January 2014 with a group of fellow left-wing university lecturers. …He has previously made much of the fact that he lived in modest accommodation in the working class Madrid neighbourhood of Vallecas and that he bought his clothes in supermarkets.

The moral of the story is that people never get rich from leftist economic policy, but leftist politicians inevitably wind up fat and happy.

But I’m digressing.

What makes the new Socialist-Podemos government so disturbing is that Spain desperately needs to move in exactly the other direction.

Writing for Cayman Financial Review, Miguel Sanchez de Pedro warned about his country’s unpalatable fiscal position.

Spain is a welfare state… Public expenditures represent 43.9 percent ($498 billion, 2017) of GDP. …pensions, healthcare and education made up 68.2 percent ($418 billion) of total public expenses for the year 2017. …The quasi-federal regime has proven highly expensive and inefficient, particularly during troubled economic cycles that leave the central government largely without any capacity to influence expenditure and rebalance regional finances. …The untenable compulsory public pension system is threatened under current and foreseeable scenarios of an ageing population…the social security accounts show a technical bankrupt institution with a negative financial net worth…due to the growing mismatch between the number of contributing workers needed to pay per pensioner – actually 1.9 workers per pensioner.

And here’s a portion of an infographic he put together about his nation’s unstable pension system.

A big problem for Spain is that too many people are riding in the wagon and too few workers are generating prosperity in the economy’s productive sector.

In a column for E21, Daniel Di Martino highlighted this concern.

Sánchez’s plan is to increase spending and finance it by raising taxes on businesses and high-income individuals. …These measures would discourage work and solidify the culture of dependency on the state. …hiring more public workers would make more people want to switch to the public sector… there are more people who receive government pensions, are unemployed, or work for the government than there are workers in the private sector. …Prime Minister Sánchez’s measures would sentence Spaniards to joblessness and state dependency, while emptying the state coffers when millionaires and soccer players leave.

And here’s a pie chart from his column.

In a study for the Bank of Spain, five economists crunched numbers for the country’s economy and concluded that higher taxes don’t yield good results.

In this paper we adopt the narrative approach to estimate the output effects of tax shocks in Spain. To this end, we have constructed a detailed record of all the relevant legislated tax changes implemented during the period 1986-2015. …Next, we estimate the GDP effects of an exogenous tax change by constructing impulse-response functions derived from simple VARs. …We find that a 1% of GDP increase in taxes depresses output by around 1.3% after one year, this effect fading away at more distant horizons. …All things considered, our set of estimates provides a coherent picture of negative short-term output effects triggered by tax increases (and vice versa).

Here’s one of the graphs from the study.

This echoes earlier academic research showing that class-warfare tax increases are especially destructive.

And let’s not forget how higher corporate tax burdens in Spain also have backfired.

P.S. Supposedly right-of-center governments in Spain also have adopted bad policy, so maybe voters figured they should opt for the real thing.

P.P.S. Spain has a peculiar problem involvng its navy.

P.P.P.S. Politicians always claim they want to tax the rich, but the Spanish experience shows that people with modest incomes are the big victims, to it’s understandable that they do everything possible to protect their money from greedy government.

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Fifty years ago, Venezuela was ranked #10 for economic liberty and enjoyed the highest living standards in Latin America

Today, the nation is an economic disaster. Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro deserve much of the blame. Their socialist policies have dropped Venezuela to last place according to Economic Freedom of the World.

Predictably, this has resulted in horrific suffering.

And it’s going from bad to worse.

In ways that are unimaginable for those of us living in civilized nations.

For instance, the Associated Press reports that grave-robbing is now a problem in the country.

Even the dead aren’t safe in Maracaibo, a sweltering, suffering city in Venezuela. Thieves have broken into some of the vaults and coffins in El Cuadrado cemetery since late last year, stealing ornaments and sometimes items from corpses as the country sinks to new depths of deprivation. “Starting eight months ago, they even took the gold teeth of the dead,” said José Antonio Ferrer, who is in charge of the cemetery, where a prominent doctor, a university director and other local luminaries are buried. Much of Venezuela is in a state of decay and abandonment, brought on by shortages of things that people need the most: cash, food, water, medicine, power, gasoline. …Many who have the means leave, joining an exodus of more than 4 million Venezuelans who have left the country in recent years. …Some people sift through trash, scavenge for food.

And hyper-inflation is creating a barter economy according to the AP.

…the economy is in such shambles that drivers are now paying for fill-ups with a little food, a candy bar or just a cigarette. Bartering at the pump has taken off as hyperinflation makes Venezuela’s paper currency, the bolivar, hard to find and renders some denominations all but worthless, so that nobody will accept them. Without cash in their wallets, drivers often hand gas station attendants a bag of rice, cooking oil or whatever is within reach. …This barter system…is just another symptom of bedlam in Venezuela. …The International Monetary Fund says inflation is expected to hit a staggering 200,000% this year. Venezuela dropped five zeros from its currency last year in a futile attempt to keep up with inflation. …Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, was once rich. But the economy has fallen into ruin because of what critics say has been two decades of corruption and mismanagement under socialist rule.

Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal points out that the poor are being hurt the most.

…the gap in living standards between the haves and the have-nots is wider than ever. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Economic equality is the socialists’ Holy Grail. People are poor, the logic goes, because the rich have too much. Ergo, all it takes to end poverty is the use of state coercion to distribute economic gains evenly. …Tell that to the Venezuelan poor. Not only have their numbers increased under socialism, but the suffering among the most vulnerable has grown more intense. …Venezuela now experiences recurring blackouts and brownouts… in the “ranchos,”…residents now make “lamps” out of mayonnaise jars, diesel taken from vehicles, and pieces of cloth. One local described it to the reporter as going back to “prehistoric” times. With water, sanitation and other public services, the story is the same. …the have-nots are at Mr. Maduro’s mercy.

College students also are suffering, as reported by the Union Journal.

…5 youngsters had fainted and two of them have been whisked away in an ambulance. The faintings on the major college have turn into a daily prevalence as a result of so many college students come to class with out consuming breakfast, or dinner the evening earlier than. In different faculties, youngsters wish to know if there’s any meals earlier than they resolve whether or not to go in… Venezuela’s devastating six-year financial disaster is hollowing out the varsity system… Starvation is simply one of many many issues chipping away at them now. Thousands and thousands of Venezuelans have fled the nation in recent times, depleting the ranks of scholars and academics alike. …Many colleges are shuttering within the once-wealthy nation as malnourished youngsters and academics who earn nearly nothing abandon lecture rooms to scratch out a residing on the streets or flee overseas. It’s a significant embarrassment for the self-proclaimed Socialist authorities.

In a column for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof shares some sad observations about the consequences of Venezuelan socialism.

This country is a kleptocracy ruled incompetently by thugs who are turning a prosperous oil-exporting nation into a failed state sliding toward starvation. …Serrano, 21, lives in the impoverished, violent slum of La Dolorita, where I met her. The baby was fading from malnutrition in May, so she frantically sought medical help — but three hospitals turned the baby away, saying there were no beds available, no doctors and no supplies. …Daisha…died at home that night. …President Nicolás Maduro’s brutal socialist government is primarily responsible for the suffering, and there are steps Maduro could take to save children’s lives, if he wanted to. …Venezuela may now be sliding toward collapse and mass starvation, while fragmenting into local control by various armed groups. Outbreaks of malaria, diphtheria and measles are spreading, and infant mortality appears to have doubled since 2008.

By the way, Kristof argues that sanctions imposed by Obama and Trump are making a bad situation worse.

That’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact that Venezuela’s awful government deserves the overwhelming share of the blame.

Let’s measure how the people of Venezuela have suffered. Here are the per-capita GDP numbers since Chavez took power in 1999. There’s volatility in the data, presumably because of changes in oil prices. But the trend is unmistakably negative.

The bottom line is that Venezuela’s living standards have collapsed by about 50 percent since the socialists took over.

That makes Greece seem like an economic powerhouse by comparison.

Let’s close, though, by comparing Venezuela to Latin America’s most market-oriented nation.

As you can see, per-capita economic output in Chile (in blue) has soared while per-capita GDP in Venezuela (in red) has collapsed.

In other words, free markets and small government are the right recipe if the goal is broadly shared prosperity.

P.S. I’ve explained on many occasions that lower-income people in Chile have been the biggest beneficiaries of pro-market reforms.

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I’m a big fan of Marco Rubio. The Florida Senator has been very good on some big issues and on some small issues. And he’s willing to fight important philosophical battles.

No politician is perfect (for instance, Rubio defends sugar subsidies), so I’ve always judged them by whether – on net – they’re on the side of more freedom or more statism.

Which is the ideal framework for today’s column.

Earlier this month, Rubio wrote a column for National Review asserting it is time for “common-good capitalism.”

Pope Leo XIII wrote that the ultimate goal for any society should be to “make men better” by providing people the opportunity to attain the dignity that comes from hard work, ownership, and raising a family. …What makes this society possible is the rights of both workers and businesses, but also their obligations to each other. …In the economy Pope Leo described, workers and businesses are not competitors for their share of limited resources, but partners in an effort that strengthens the entire nation. …This…doesn’t describe the economy we actually have today. Large corporations have become vehicles for shareholders and banks to assert claims to cash flows, rather than engines of productive innovation. Over the past 40 years, the financial sector’s share of corporate profits increased from about 10 to nearly 30 percent. The share of profits sent to shareholders increased by 300 percent. This occurred while investment of those profits back into the companies’ workers — and future — dropped 20 percent. …This is what it looks like when, as Pope Francis warned, “finance overwhelms the real economy.” …Diagnosing the problem is something we should be able to achieve… Ultimately, deciding what the government should do about it must be the core question of our politics. …What we need to do is restore common-good capitalism. …our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market; the market exists to serve our nation.

Some of this rhetoric rubs me the wrong way (and citing an economic illiterate like Pope Francis is appalling), but what really matters is whether Rubio is proposing more power for government or less power for government.

That’s hard to say because he doesn’t offer much in terms of policy.

Though I’m not overly impressed by the handful of ideas that were mentioned.

I don’t pretend to know anything about rare-earth minerals, but it’s laughable to think the Small Business Administration is a wellspring of innovation, and there’s plenty of evidence that paid parental leave is bad policy (child tax credits aren’t bad, but there are other tax policies that are far better for families).

On the other hand, Rubio also has been making the case for “full expensing,” which is a very good policy.

Since we don’t have any additional details, I don’t know whether his new agenda is a net plus or a net negative.

Kevin Williamson of National Review, by contrast, is definitely not a fan of Rubio’s approach. Here’s some of what he wrote last week.

Senator Rubio…joins the ranks of those who propose to reinvent capitalism — “common-good capitalism,” he calls it. …Senator Rubio, working from remarks originally delivered in a speech at Catholic University, references a series of popes — Leo XIII, mostly, but also Benedict and Francis — to describe (whether the senator understands this or not) the familiar moral basis of fascist economic thinking… I write this as a fellow Catholic: God defend us from these backward, primitive-minded Catholic social reformers. …power is what is at issue. Men such as Senator Rubio desire for themselves the power to overrule markets — to limit trade and property rights, enterprise and exchange — in the service of what Senator Rubio describes as the “common good.” The problems with that are…Senator Rubio does not know what the common good is and has no way of knowing. …What we need from men in government is not the quasi-metaphysical project of reinventing capitalism in the name of the “common good.” …This is not a brief for anarchism. …We need stability and predictability from a government that secures our liberty and our property in the least obtrusive way that can be managed.

And he followed up two days later with another critical column, even equating Rubio’s agenda to Elizabeth Warren’s loony proposal.

From Senator Marco Rubio and his “common-good capitalism” to Senator Elizabeth Warren and her “accountable capitalism,” politicians right and left who want politicians to have more power over private economic decisions assume a dilemma in which something called “capitalism” must be balanced against or made subordinate to something called the “common good.” This is the great forgetful stupidity of our time. …Capitalism, meaning security in one’s own property and in the right to work and to trade, is the common good… What is contemplated by Senator Rubio and Senator Warren — along with a few batty adherents of the primitive nonidea known in Catholic circles as “integralism” and everywhere else more forthrightly as “totalitarianism” — is to invert the purpose of the U.S. government. …We’re supposed to give up our property rights so that these two and their ilk can use corporate welfare to fortify their own political interests? …The “stakeholder” thesis put forward by Rubio and Warren would strip shareholders of control of their own property and use that property in the service of interests of other parties, who are not its rightful owners. …the great prosperity currently enjoyed by North Americans and Western Europeans — and, increasingly, by the rest of the world — is a product…of capitalism… It wasn’t magic. It wasn’t the cleverness of Senator Rubio or Senator Warren. It wasn’t the big ideas of Pope Francis, to the modest extent that he has any economic ideas worth identifying as such.

Oren Cass argues that Williamson is both unfair and wrong about Rubio.

Williamson believes that Rubio wants to “be . . . the bandit, taking control of other people’s property”; “strip shareholders of control of their own property,” which “is robbery”; “redefine away the property rights of millions of Americans”; “limit . . . property rights”; and “run Apple or Facebook or Ford.” …I’ve read the Rubio speech carefully and can find none of this. …Rubio’s project is to explore the vast gray expanse between the white of liberty and the black of property theft. …This is the terrain on which many of American history’s great public deliberations have unfolded, yielding policies from Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures to the “internal improvements” of the early 1800s, the tariff debates between McKinley and Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Kennedy’s space race, and Reagan’s import quotas. Property theft all of it, at gunpoint no less, if I understand Williamson correctly. …Someone will have to make a value judgment as to what “goods” are in fact “good” and thus worthy of providing publicly.

Cass is right that there’s a lot of space between pure capitalism and awful statism. I’ve made the same point.

But it does worry me that he favorably cites a bunch of historical policy mistakes, such as protectionism, antitrust laws, and the New Deal.

Jonah Goldberg makes the should-be-obvious point that the United States is hardly a laissez-faire paradise.

For as long as I can remember, people on the left have complained about “unfettered capitalism.” …Senator Bernie Sanders said earlier this year that “we have to talk about democratic socialism as an alternative to unfettered capitalism.” …Recently, the concern with capitalism’s unfetteredness has become bipartisan. Senators Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have taken up the cause in a series of speeches and policy proposals. Conservative intellectuals such as Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony have taken dead aim at unrestrained capitalism. J. D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, and Tucker Carlson of Fox News have suggested that economic policy is run by . . . libertarians. My response to this dismaying development is: What on earth are these people talking about? …If you think there are no restraints on the market or on economic activity, why on earth do we have the Department of Labor, HHS, HUD, FDA, EPA, OSHA, or IRS? The United States has one of the most progressive tax systems in the world (i.e., the share of taxes paid by the rich versus everyone else). If you take into account all social-welfare spending, we spend more on entitlements than plenty of rich countries. Now, if you think we don’t spend, regulate, or tax enough, fine. Make your case. If you think we should spend and tax differently, I’m right there with you. But the notion that the United States is a libertarian fantasyland is itself a fantasy.

Amen.

And this brings me to my modest contribution to this discussion.

I’ve already admitted that Rubio hasn’t provided enough details to assess whether he wants more liberty or more statism.

That being said, I’m skeptical of “common-good capitalism” in the same way I’m suspicious about “nationalist conservatism” and “reform conservatism” (and we know for a fact that “kinder-and-gentler conservatism” and “compassionate conservatism” meant more statism).

So here’s my challenge to Rubio and Cass (as well as everyone else who proposes an alternative to Reagan-style small-government conservatism). Please specifically identify how much government you want. Yes, there is a “vast gray expanse” between pure laissez-faire and pure statism, as Cass noted. But he didn’t say where in that expanse he wants America to be.

To help people respond to this challenge, here’s a chart, based on the data from Economic Freedom of the World. In that “vast gray expanse” between pure capitalism and pure statism, should policy makers try to shift America in the direction of Hong Kong? Or in the direction of Sweden, or even Greece?

The bottom line is that we need to climb the scale (i.e., have more overall economic liberty) if we want more prosperity.

That’s what will help facilitate all the things, such as good jobs and strong communities, that Senator Rubio wants for America.

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I give Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang credit for a bit of honesty. Both of them have proposals to significantly – indeed, dramatically – expand the burden of government spending, and they actually admit their plans will require big tax increases on lower-income and middle-class voters.

Their numbers are still wrong, but at least they recognize you can’t have French-sized government financed by just a tiny sliver of rich people.

This makes them far more honest than other candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

In the past, I’ve pointed out that there’s no nation in the world that finances a big welfare state without high tax burdens on ordinary people – generally steep value-added taxes, along with onerous payroll taxes and high income tax rates on middle-income earners (see, for instanced, this horrifying story from Spain).

And I’ve also periodically shared analysis from honest leftists who admit major tax hikes on the broader population will be inevitable if politicians in the U.S. create European-sized redistribution programs.

Today, we’re going to add to this collection of honest leftists.

There’s an explicitly pro-socialist magazine called Jacobin, in which Doug Henwood has a lengthy article explaining – from his statist perspective – that it’s necessary to have higher taxes on everybody.

We should be clear about what it will take to fund a decent welfare state: not just soaking the rich, but raising taxes across the board… I’m defining social democracy as a large and robust welfare state that socializes a lot of consumption through taxation and spending, compressing the income distribution, …insulating people from the risks of sickness and unemployment, and…it’s a lot bigger than Medicare for All and free college.

He compares the U.S. to other nations, especially the Nordic nations.

For those who want bigger government, America doesn’t spend nearly enough.

In 2017 (the vintage of most of these stats), the US government at all levels (aka general government in fiscal jargon) took in 34 percent of GDP in taxes and spent 38 percent. …Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — spend an average of 50 percent of GDP and take in 53 percent. None is very far from those averages, which are twelve and nineteen points above US levels, respectively. …The fourth graph is where American exceptionalism really comes in — the share of GDP spent on “social protection,” that is, classic welfare state programs. In the OECD’s words, these include “sickness and disability; old age (i.e. pensions); survivors; family and children; unemployment; housing; social exclusion n.e.c. [not elsewhere classified]; [and] R&D social protection.” The United States spends under 8 percent of GDP on these things, less than half the OECD average and a third what the Scandinavians spend.

Here’s a chart from the article showing how the U.S. doesn’t keep pace.

And how do the northern Europeans finance their big welfare states?

Henwood is very honest about the implications. You can tax the rich, but the rest of us need to have our wallets lightened.

How do the Scandinavian states — and others that are more generous social spenders than the United States — finance that spending? Not…by borrowing. Countries with more generous welfare states than ours borrow far less. Instead, they tax. …On some things, like Social Security and personal and corporate income taxes, the United States isn’t an outlier. On others, we are. …At 5 percent of GDP, our taxes on goods and services — mostly value-added taxes (VATs) in other countries… — are less than a third the Scandinavian share of GDP (16 percent)… The difference between the United States and the Scandinavians is over 10 percent of GDP.

In other words, big government means a punitive value-added tax.

That means higher taxes on the poor, as well as the middle class.

But he argues that’s okay because government will take care of everybody.

Yes, VATs are regressive. They’re taxes on consumption that hit the poor harder than the rich because the further down the income scale you go, the larger a portion of your income you consume. But their regressivity is more than compensated for in the Scandinavian countries by spending, which not only takes from the rich and gives to the poor, but takes from the masses and gives it back… It’s a way of socializing consumption to some degree, of taking things out of competitive markets.

Here’s another chart from the article, this one showing that the United States ostensibly doesn’t collect enough taxes from consumption (“goods and services”).

Now let’s take a closer look at the budgetary numbers.

Henwood points out that the usual class-warfare taxes would only finance a portion of the statism wish list.

Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez published a widely cited paper arguing that the optimal top tax rate for soaking the rich is 73 percent — optimal in the sense of pulling in the most revenue. …Bernie Sanders’s freshly released wealth tax plan would raise $435 billion a year, according to its designers, Saez and his Berkeley colleague Gabriel Zucman… Combine those two and you get a revenue increase of $520–755 billion, or 2.4–3.5 percent of GDP. Scandinavian revenues are 19 percentage points higher as a share of GDP than the United States’. …these taxes, which are probably what lots of contemporary American leftists have in mind, come only an eighth to a fifth of the way toward closing the gap with the Scandinavians.

His conclusion is very frank and honest.

Some might find it impolitic of me to say all this, but you have to be honest with people, otherwise they’ll turn on you for selling a bill of goods. …if we want a seriously better society of the sort outlined in the Green New Deal, then it’s going to take a lot more — and it won’t “pay for itself.”

My conclusion is that Henwood has profoundly awful policy preferences (Europeans have much lower living standards, for instance), but doesn’t believe in make-believe budgeting.

P.S. The Democrat presidential candidates have embraced one big levy – the carbon tax – that would grab lots of money from lower-income and middle-class people. But they seem to have successful convinced themselves (and maybe voters) that it doesn’t lead to higher tax burdens (even though proponents of such levies, such as the International Monetary Fund, openly acknowledge that consumers will bear the cost).

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Last month, I criticized the New York Times for a very inaccurate attack against Chile’s successful pro-market reforms.

The paper’s editorial asserted that only the rich have gained, a view that is utterly nonsensical and inaccurate.

Indeed, I visited Chile about a year ago and finished a three-part series (here, here, and here) showing how the less fortunate have been the biggest winners.

But numbers and facts are no match for ideology at the NYT.

We now have a new story, written by Amanda Taub, asserting that free markets have failed in Chile.

For three weeks, Chile has been in upheaval. …Perhaps the only people not shocked are Chileans. …The promise that political leaders…have made for decades — that free markets would lead to prosperity, and prosperity would take care of other problems — has failed them. …Inequality is still deeply entrenched. Chile’s middle class is struggling… There is broad agreement, among protesters and experts alike, that the country needs structural reforms.

This view is echoed by a Chilean professor in a column for the U.K.’s left-leaning Guardian.

Inequality in Chile is scandalous and most middle-class Chileans live in precarity. …the country has a structural problem with a clear name: inequality. The per capita income of the bottom quintile of Chileans is less than $140 a month. Half the population earns about $550. …This crisis is, at heart, an urgent message to the Chilean elite: profound changes are needed to rebuild the social contract.

But if Chile is a failure, then other nations in Latin America must be in a far worse category.

Look at what’s happened to average incomes over the past three decades.

It’s also worth noting Argentina’s decline and Venezuela’s collapse. Does Ms. Taub prefer those outcomes over Chile’s growing prosperity?

Speaking of which, here’s a powerful video comparing Chile and Venezuela.

So why is there discontent when Chile has been so successful?

In her Wall Street Journal column, Mary Anastasia O’Grady worries that the left controls the narrative in Chile.

…the hard left has spent years planting socialism in the Chilean psyche via secondary schools, universities, the media and politics. Even as the country has grown richer than any of its neighbors by defending private property, competition and the rule of law, Chileans marinate in anticapitalist propaganda. The millennials who poured into the streets to promote class warfare reflect that influence. The Chilean right has largely abandoned its obligation to engage in the battle of ideas in the public square. Mr. Piñera isn’t an economic liberal and makes no attempt to defend the morality of the market. He hasn’t even reversed the antigrowth policies of his predecessor, Socialist Michelle Bachelet. Chileans have one side of the story pounded into their heads. As living standards rise, so do expectations. When reality doesn’t keep up, the ground is already fertile for socialists to plow.

Incidentally, even the center-left Economist doesn’t agree with the argument that Chile is a failure.

In Chile, free-marketeers’ favourite economy in the region, protests against a rise in fares on the Santiago metro descended into rioting and then became a 1.2m-person march against inequality… Despite its flaws, Chile is a success story. Its income per person is the second-highest in Latin America and close to that of Portugal and Greece. Since the end of a brutal dictatorship in 1990 Chile’s poverty rate has dropped from 40% to less than 10%. Inflation is consistently low and public finances are well managed. …This is no argument for complacency in Chile. …Chileans still feel underserved by the state. They save for their own pensions, but many have not contributed long enough to provide for a tolerable retirement. Waiting times in the public health service are long. So people pay extra for care.

Sadly, the article then goes on to endorse bigger government and more redistribution – policies which would erode Chile’s competitiveness and prosperity.

Unfortunately, the President of Chile seems willing to embrace these bad policies.

In another column for the WSJ, Ms. O’Grady warns about the possible consequences.

The pain for Latin America’s most successful economy is only beginning. …Mr. Piñera…has opened the door to rewriting Chile’s Constitution to meet the demands of socialists, communists and others on the left. If Latin American history is any guide, a constitutional rewrite will strip away political and economic rights, concentrate power and leave the nation poorer and more unjust. The biggest losers would be the aspirational poor, who will be denied access to a better life in what has become one of the world’s most socially mobile economies. …Mr. Piñera has agreed to talks with the “citizens” whose interests are presumably represented by the firebombers and looters. …This is a stunning surrender and it is hardly surprising that it seems only to have whet the appetite of the radical left.

She points out that Chile’s market reforms have been hugely successful.

What isn’t debatable is the economic gains, across the board, that the market model has created. Less than 9% of the nation now lives below the poverty level. In a 2018 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report titled “A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility,” Chile stands out for its social mobility. According to the data, 23% of sons whose fathers were in the bottom quartile of earners make it to the top quartile. By this measure, Chile had the highest social mobility among 16 OECD countries in the study. …inequality in Chile has been falling for 20 years. …That’s something for Mr. Piñera to think about before he helps the left destroy a model that works.

Amen.

It would be a tragedy if politicians wrecked Latin America’s biggest success story.

Let’s close with some analysis in Harvard’s Latin America Policy Journal by Rodrigo Valdés, who was a finance minister under the previous center-left government.

What are the facts? Chile’s per capita GDP increased almost threefold between 1990 and 2015, with short-lived and shallow recessions in 1999 and 2009 only. More precisely, per capita GDP increased a cumulative 280 percent, or 5.3 percent per year (at PPP and constant dollars). At the same time, the distribution of income improved. …Remarkably, all but the top quintile (actually, all but the top decile) improved their share of total income after taxes and transfers. …For the middle 20 percent or “middle class,” growth explained more than 10 times what they gained through better income distribution. For the bottom 20 percent, the redistribution effort was more relevant, though growth was still dominant, explaining six times more than redistribution. Second, what Chile accomplished in the last 25 years is impressive. For the middle class, even a sudden transformation to the Nordics in terms of income distribution (without changes in aggregate GDP) produces less than one-tenth of what the combination of actual growth and better distribution produced for this segment. The bottom 20 percent gained in these two and half decades more than four times what they would achieve with a sudden Nordic distribution.

I suppose I should highlight the fact that a high-level official for a left-leaning government is pointing out that Chile’s reforms have been very successful.

But what really matters is the point he makes about how growth being far more important than redistribution – assuming the goal is to actually help low-income people live better lives.

The third column shows how much income has expanded for each segment of the population. And you can see (highlighted in red) that the bottom 10 percent has enjoyed more than twice the income gains as the top 10 percent.

But pay extra attention to the first and second columns. Economic growth far and away is the most important factor in boosting prosperity for the less fortunate.

Which shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve shared lots of evidence (over and over and over again) showing that market-driven growth is the best way of helping low-income people.

Indeed, even the World Bank agrees the Chilean model is vastly superior to the Venezuelan approach.

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