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Archive for the ‘Statism’ Category

It doesn’t get as much attention as basket-case nations such as Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, or Cuba, but Argentina is one of the world’s worst-governed nations.

Though the most damning indictment, in my humble opinion, is that Argentina in the late 1940s used to be one of the world’s 10-richest nations.

But beginning in 1946 under Juan Peron’s statist presidency (much beloved by Pope Francis for inexplicable reasons), policy shifted to the left and Argentina become one of the world’s least market-oriented nations.

Not surprisingly, the country’s relative living standards then began a steady decline, thus providing us with a painful lesson that rich nations that adopt bad policy don’t remain rich.

Recent history hasn’t made things better. Populist-left governments were in charge from 2003-2015, followed by an ineffective right-reformist government (akin to Nixon-Bush-Trump-style Republicanism) from 2015-2019, and now the left is back in charge.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that Argentina has bloated, corrupt, and ineffective government.

Here are some details from a column that wrote last September for Project Syndicate.

Argentina has fallen back into crisis for the simple reason that not enough has changed since the last debacle. …Argentinian authorities succumbed to the same temptation that tripped up their predecessors. In an effort to compensate for slower-than-expected improvements in domestic capacity, they permitted excessive foreign-currency debt, aggravating what economists call the “original sin”: a significant currency mismatch between assets and liabilities, as well as between revenues and debt servicing. …Undeterred by Argentina’s history of chronic volatility and episodic illiquidity – including eight prior defaults – creditors gobbled up as much debt as the country and its companies would issue… The search for higher yields has been encouraged by unusually loose monetary policies… Then there is the IMF, which readily stepped in once again to assist Argentina… So far, Argentina has received $44 billion under the IMF’s largest-ever funding arrangement.

This latest bailout is a classic case of throwing good money after bad, which seems to be the IMF’s primary purpose – especially with regards to Argentina.

Later that same month, Anne Krueger weighed in with another column for the same publication.

Argentina is…chronically overspending and over-regulating until it is forced to go to the International Monetary Fund for a new round of treatment. In 2001, the country suffered a major crisis, and…entered into an IMF loan program. But its debt restructuring was messy, and policies to address its underlying structural problems – lowering trade barriers, allowing public-utility prices to rise – were pursued halfheartedly or not at all. …government spending and fiscal deficits began to increase once again. Consolidated public expenditures rose from a low of 22.9% of GDP in 2002 to 30.1% of GDP in 2008, and to 42.2% in 2015. …For an economy as distorted as Argentina’s, there is no medicine that can prevent a period of painful adjustment. …By early 2018, Argentina was in another crisis. …in June 2018 the IMF approved a $50 billion loan program, the largest in the Fund’s history. …The problem, once again, is that the medicine was not strong enough. At the patient’s insistence, the measures were too mild to be effective, and more difficult structural reforms were delayed. …the country needs structural reforms, especially a further reduction in the size of the government sector, starting with pensions. More gradualism will only prolong the pain and allow political opposition to mount.

Ms. Krueger is correct. Only good policy will cure Argentina’s woes.

Sadly, bailouts actually undermine that goal give the country’s awful politicians an excuse to postpone necessary reforms.

Though there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of Argentine statism. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out earlier this year that we now has a real-world example of democratic socialism.

…the Nordic nations are “firmly rooted in capitalism and free markets,” wrote Michael Cembalest of JP Morgan Asset Management in a note last summer… The closest Cembalest could find to a true democratic socialist state, at least by his definition, is Argentina, “which has defaulted 7 times since its independence in 1816, which has seen the largest relative standard of living decline in the world since 1900, and which is on the brink of political and economic chaos again in 2019.” …Argentina met most of the following criteria: a) higher personal and corporate tax rates, and higher government spending; b) more worker protections restricting the ability of companies to hire and fire, and less flexibility for companies to set wages based on worker productivity and/or to hire foreign labor; c) more reliance on regulation, more constraints on real estate development; d) more anti-trust enforcement and more state intervention in product markets; and a shift away from a shareholder-centric business model; e) protections for workers and domestic industries through tariff and non-tariff barriers, and more constraints on capital inflows and outflows.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of so-called democratic socialism.

If you prefer hard data, this chart shows that Argentina has the world’s worst economic performance over the past 100 years.

And I imagine the country would look even worse if 1945 was the base year.

Let’s close with this recently tweeted video from Human Progress, which shows relative levels of per-capita economic output over a 100-year period for 16 different nations.

Pay specific attention to how high Argentina was ranked in the late 1940s if you want to appreciate the awful consequences of Peronist statism.

P.S. Also make sure to note that Chile was in last place in the 1970s and then significantly improved in the rankings by liberalizing the economy and reducing the burden of government in the 1980s. Yet another reminder that the world is a laboratory and every experiment tells us the same thing: Statism produces bad results and markets deliver good results.

 

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Hardly anybody noticed because the nation has been focused on protests about police misbehavior, but Joe Biden officially clinched the Democratic nomination this past week.

And he’s now comfortably ahead in the political betting markets as well as public polling.

If Biden wins in November, what does that mean for the nation’s economic policy?

According to folks on the left, a Biden presidency means bigger government and more statism.

For instance, opining for the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie applauds Biden’s leftist agenda.

…if the goal is to move America to the left…then a Biden candidacy…represents an opportunity. …If Biden goes on to win the White House, there’s real space for the pro-Sanders left to work its will on policy. …It can fulfill some of its goals under the cover of Biden’s moderation, from raising the minimum wage nationally to pushing the American health care system closer to single-payer. …Biden…is a creature of the party. He doesn’t buck the mainstream, he accommodates it. He doesn’t reject the center, he tries to claim it. …the center of the Democratic Party as far left as it’s been since before Ronald Reagan, then Biden is likely to hew to that center, not challenge it.

His colleague at the NYT, Michelle Goldberg, is similarly enthused about the prospects for bigger government under a Biden Administration.

Biden’s proposals go far beyond his call for a $15 federal minimum wage — a demand some saw as radical when Sanders pushed it four years ago. While it’s illegal for companies to fire employees for trying to organize a union, the penalties are toothless. Biden proposes to make those penalties bite and to hold executives personally liable. …should Biden become president, progressives have the opportunity to make generational gains. …To try to unite the party around him, he’s making serious progressive commitments. …he’s moving leftward. Biden recently came out for tuition-free college for students whose families earn less than $125,000. He endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan…His climate plan already went beyond any of Barack Obama’s initiatives, and he’s pledged to make it even more robust.

According to (supposedly) neutral analysts, a Biden presidency means bigger government and more statism.

In an article for Newsweek, Steve Friess discusses Biden’s shift to the left.

Being stuck running for the presidency from the basement of his home in Wilmington, Delaware, had given the former vice president a lot of time to think, he told them, and he wanted bigger ideas. Go forth, he urged his financial brain trust, and bring back the boldest, most ambitious proposals they’d ever dreamed of to reshape the U.S. economy… Biden began issuing a raft of new proposals that move his positions closer to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, with a promise to unveil an even more transformative economic plan this summer. …It’s a yes to adding $200 a month to Social Security benefits and lowering the qualifying age for Medicare from 65 to 60. Yes to trillions in new spending, yes to new regulations on banks and industry, yes to devil-may-care deficits. …the leader he most often invokes—in interviews, in public addresses, on his podcast—is no longer Barack Obama but Franklin Delano Roosevelt. …Biden has already made a series of significant leftward policy shifts since effectively sewing up the nomination in March.

Perry Bacon, in a piece for fivethirtyeight, analyzes Biden’s statist agenda.

…if Biden is elected in November, the left may get a presidency it likes after all…if American politics is moving left, expect Biden to do the same. …Biden’s long record in public office suggests that he is fairly flexible on policy — shifting his positions to whatever is in the mainstream of the Democratic Party at a given moment. …Biden is likely to be a fairly liberal president, no matter how moderate he sounded in the primaries. …Biden’s 2020 primary platform…adopted fairly liberal policies…more liberal than his pre-campaign record suggested. The Democratic Party is more liberal now than it was when Bill Clinton took office, or even when Obama was inaugurated, and Biden’s platform reflects that shift. …Biden and his advisers are now…rolling out more liberal policy plans, speaking in increasingly populist terms and joining forces with the most progressive voices in the party. …“Joe Biden is running on the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in recent history. But given the pandemic, he has to look at the New Deal and Great Society traditions in the Democratic Party and go bigger,” said Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group aligned with Ocasio-Cortez.

Writing for the Washington Post, Sean Sullivan documents Biden’s leftward drift.

Joe Biden sought to appeal to liberal supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday with a pair of new proposals to expand access to health care and curtail student loan debt. Biden proposed lowering the eligibility age for Medicare coverage from 65 to 60. He also came out in favor of forgiving student loan debt for people who attended public colleges and universities and some private schools and make up to $125,000 a year. …In another peace offering to liberals, Biden proposed paying for his student debt plan by repealing a provision in the recent coronavirus legislation that Congress passed and President Trump enacted. “That tax cut overwhelmingly benefits the richest Americans and is unnecessary for addressing the current COVID-19 economic relief efforts,” he wrote… Biden endorsed a bankruptcy plan put forth by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another rival who ran to his left.

And, according to more market-friendly sources, a Biden presidency means bigger government and more statism.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized about Biden’s leftist agenda.

Already Medicare is scheduled to be insolvent by 2026. …In 1970, life expectancy in the U.S. was 70.8. Now it’s about eight years longer. By lowering the age of eligibility instead, Mr. Biden would begin shifting Medicare’s focus from seniors to everybody else. Don’t worry about the funding, he insists, since the extra costs would be “financed out of general revenues.” …Mr. Biden’s new left turn on student loans is equally sharp. …Cancel all federal undergraduate tuition debt for many borrowers who went to public schools, including four-year universities. This forgiveness would be given to anyone who earns $125,000 a year or less. …How much would it cost? There’s no explanation.

Jeff Jacoby analyzed Biden in a column for the Boston Globe.

Biden…is running on a platform far more progressive — i.e., far less moderate — than any Democratic presidential nominee in history. …on issue after issue, Biden has veered sharply from Obama’s path. On health insurance, for example, Obama rejected a public option as part of the Affordable Care Act and repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining private coverage. But Biden favors a public option open to everyone… Biden supports government-funded health care even for unauthoritzed immigrants, something Obama never came close to proposing. …No Democratic presidential nominee ever endorsed anything like the radical Green New Deal, with its price tag in the tens of trillions of dollars and its goal of eliminating the use of all fossil fuels. But Biden does. No Democratic nominee ever called for a national minimum wage of $15 an hour. But Biden does. …Sanders may not end up on the November ballot, but it will unmistakably reflect his influence. For he and his band of progressives have pushed their party to the left with such success that even the “moderate” in the race would be the most liberal Democrat ever nominated for president.

Here’s some of what Peter Suderman wrote for Reason.

Biden is a moderate compared to Sanders, but he is notably to the left of previous Democratic standard-bearers. …Biden has proposed a significant expansion of the Affordable Care Act that his campaign estimates would cost $750 billion over a decade… Biden has proposed a $1.7 trillion climate plan that is similar in scope to many candidates on his left and a $750 billion education plan… He favors an assault weapons ban and other gun control measures, a national $15 minimum wage, and a raft of subsidies, loans, and other government-granted nudges designed to promote rural economies. Has proposed $3.4 trillion worth of tax hikes—more than double what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed when she ran in 2016. …Biden’s leftward drift is thus the party’s leftward shift…, a big-government liberal, a candidate whose current incarnation was shaped and informed by progressive politics, if not wholly captured by them.

The Tax Foundation examined the former Vice President’s tax plan and the results are not encouraging.

Former Vice President Joe Biden would enact a number of policies that would raise taxes, including individual income taxes and payroll taxes, on high-income individuals with income above $400,000. …According to the Tax Foundation’s General Equilibrium Model, the Biden tax plan would reduce GDP by 1.51 percent over the long term. …The plan would shrink the capital stock by 3.23 percent and reduce the overall wage rate by 0.98 percent, leading to 585,000 fewer full-time equivalent jobs. …On a dynamic basis, we estimate that Biden’s tax plan would raise about 15 percent less revenue than on a conventional basis over the next decade. …That is because the relatively smaller economy would shrink the tax base for payroll, individual income, and business income taxes. …The plan would lead to lower after-tax income for all income levels.

Here’s a table summarizing the findings.

So what does all this mean?

At the risk of oversimplifying, Biden unquestionably would move tax policy to the left (he actually said higher taxes are patriotic, even though he engages in aggressive tax avoidance), and the same thing would happen on regulatory issues.

His spending agenda is terrible, though it’s worth noting that Democrat presidents usually don’t spend as much as Republicans (with the admirable exception of Reagan).

And, to be fair, there’s no way he could be as bad on trade as Trump.

Let’s close by looking at some hard data. Back in January, I sifted through the vote ratings prepared by the National Taxpayers Union and the Club for Growth and showed that Biden was not a Bill Clinton-style moderate.

I went back to those same sources an put together this comparison of Biden and some other well-known Democrats (scores on a 0-100 scale, with zero being statism and 100 being libertarian).

In both measures, he’s worse than Crazy Bernie!

Moreover, a lifetime average of zero from the Club for Growth is rather horrifying. His average from the National Taxpayers Union isn’t quite so bad, but the trend is in the wrong direction. Biden’s post-2000 average was less than 10, while his score for the preceding years averaged more than 23.

That being said, my two cents on this topic is that Biden is a statist, but not overly ideological.

His support for bigger government is largely a strategy of catering to the various interest groups that dominate the Democratic Party.

The good news is that he’s an incrementalist and won’t aggressively push for a horrifying FDR-style agenda if he gets to the White House.

The bad news is that he will probably allow Nancy Pelosi and other statist ideologues to dictate that kind of agenda if he wins the presidency.

P.S. My collection of Biden-oriented humor is rather sparse (see here, here, here, and here), an oversight that I’ll have to address in the near future.

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I sometimes wonder why libertarians aren’t more persuasive given that there’s so much evidence for our economic and social views.

The answer may have something to do with matters such as psychology. Let’s take a closer look at this issue, starting with a video from Johan Norberg.

Johan’s point is that the real gap is between classical liberals (i.e., libertarians) and statists.

Though most of the research and analysis is based on potential differences between conservatives and liberals, as conventionally defined.

For instance, in a column for the U.K.-based Guardian, Arlie Hochschild writes about differences in awareness on the right and left.

…what’s startling is the further finding that higher education does not improve a person’s perceptions – and sometimes even hurts it. In their survey answers, highly educated Republicans were no more accurate in their ideas about Democratic opinion than poorly educated Republicans. For Democrats, the education effect was even worse: the more educated a Democrat is, according to the study, the less he or she understands the Republican worldview. “This effect,” the report says, “is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.” …Even more than their Republican counterparts, highly educated Democrats tend to live in exclusively Democratic enclaves. The more they report “almost all my friends hold the same political views”, the worse their guesses on what Republicans think. …Although in principle more tolerant of political diversity, highly educated – and mostly urban – Democrats live, ironically, with less of it.

And here’s a tweet about educated folks on the left being more likely to live in a bubble.

Regarding the issue of how different ideologies respond to external threats (supposedly a major driver of philosophical differences), Ross Douthat analyzed how conservatives responded to coronavirus in a column for the New York Times.

…an influential body of literature has attempted to psychologize the partisan divide — to identify conservative and liberal personality types, right-wing or left-wing minds or brains… In its crudest form this literature just amounts to liberal self-congratulation, with survey questions and regression analyses deployed to “prove” with “science” that liberals are broad-minded freethinkers and conservatives are cramped authoritarians. But…Haidt argues that conservatives actually have more diverse moral intuitions than liberals, encompassing categories like purity and loyalty as well as care and fairness, and that the right-wing mind therefore sometimes understands the left-wing mind better than vice versa. …the political responses to the pandemic have put these psychological theories to a very interesting test.

He then applies this analysis to the coronavirus.

If there was ever a crisis tailored to the conservative mind-set, surely it would be this one, with the main peril being that conservatives would wildly overreact to such a trigger. …As the disease spread and the debate went mainstream, liberal opinion mostly abandoned its anti-quarantine posture and swung toward a reasonable panic, while conservative opinion divided, with a large portion of the right following the lead of Trump himself, who spent crucial weeks trying to wish the crisis away. …figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity manifested a conservatism of tribal denial, owning the libs by minimizing the coronavirus threat. …one might say that the pandemic illustrates the power of partisan mood affiliation over any kind of deeper ideological mind-set. Or relatedly, it illustrates the ways in which under the right circumstances, people can easily swing between different moral intuitions. (This holds for liberals as well as conservatives: A good liberal will be as deferential to authority as any conservative when the authority has the right academic degrees…) …what we call “American conservatism” is probably more ideologically and psychologically heterogeneous than the conservative mind-set that social scientists aspire to measure and pin down. In particular, it includes an incredibly powerful streak of what you might call folk libertarianism… This mentality, with its reflexive Ayn Randism and its Panglossian hyper-individualism, is definitely essential to understanding part of the American right. But…I’m doubtful that it corresponds to any universal set of psychological tendencies that we could reasonably call conservative.

By the way, a new study by four social scientists, published in Nature, casts doubt on the earlier research regarding ideological differences in threat perception

About a decade ago, a study documented that conservatives have stronger physiological responses to threatening stimuli than liberals. This work launched an approach aimed at uncovering the biological roots of ideology. Despite wide-ranging scientific and popular impact, independent laboratories have not replicated the study. We conducted a pre-registered direct replication (n = 202) and conceptual replications in the United States (n = 352) and the Netherlands (n = 81). Our analyses do not support the conclusions of the original study, nor do we find evidence for broader claims regarding the effect of disgust and the existence of a physiological trait.

And another study by three social scientists in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin also casts doubt on the earlier research.

One consistent finding is that conservatives show higher disgust sensitivity than liberals. This finding, however, is predominantly based on assessments of disgust to specific elicitors, which confound individuals’ sensitivity and propensity to the experience of disgust with the extent to which they find specific elicitors disgusting. Across five studies, we vary specific elicitors of disgust, showing that the relations between political orientation and disgust sensitivity depend on the specific set of elicitors used. We also show that disgust sensitivity is not associated with political orientation when measured with an elicitor-unspecific scale. Taken together, our findings suggest that the differences between conservatives and liberals in disgust sensitivity are context dependent rather than a stable personality difference.

So maybe there’s not a meaningful difference between right and left with regards to matters such as disgust and threats.

But there seems to be plenty of evidence that there are differences in other areas.

Depending on political affiliation, Americans shop differently, as reported by Suzanne Kapner and Dante Chinni in the Wall Street Journal.

Consumer research data show Democrats have become more likely to wear Levi’s than their Republican counterparts. The opposite is true with Wrangler, which is now far more popular with Republicans. There is no simple explanation behind those consumer moves. Some of it is due to social and political stances companies are taking, such as Levi’s embrace of gun control. …the country is becoming more polarized along political lines, which is having an effect on brands that choose to stay out of the political fray. …Nearly 60% of 1,000 Americans surveyed by Edelman last year said they would choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues. That is up from 47% in 2017.

Some of this makes sense to me. I have dramatically reduced my purchases at Dick’s, for example, because of the company’s opposition to the 2nd Amendment.

Here’s a graphic from the story. The self-selection of Fox and CNN viewers is especially noteworthy.

Folks on the right and left may even sleep differently, according to research published in the Journal of Politics by Aleksander Ksiazkiewicz at the University of Illinois.

This article proposes that chronotype (a person’s time-of-sleep preference) is a previously unidentified psychological correlate of political ideology. Chronotype may lead to political ideology through a motivated social cognitive process, ideology may shape sleep patterns through a desire to align with social norms, or ideology and chronotype may arise from common antecedents, such as genetics, socialization, or community influences. Analyses demonstrate a link between a morningness and conservatism in seven American samples and one British sample. This relationship is robust to controls for openness, conscientiousness, and demographics, including age, sex, income, and education.

Last but not least, Justin Lehmiller of the Kinsey Institute, in a column for Politico, says Republicans and Democrats have different fantasies.

I surveyed 4,175 adult Americans from all 50 states about what turns them on…one of the more intriguing things I uncovered was the political divide in our fantasy worlds. While self-identified Republicans and self-identified Democrats reported fantasizing with the same average frequency—several times per week—I found that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to fantasize about a range of activities that involve sex outside of marriage. Think things like infidelity, orgies and partner swapping… By contrast, self-identified Democrats were more likely than Republicans to fantasize about almost the entire spectrum of BDSM activities, from bondage to spanking to dominance-submission play. The largest Democrat-Republican divide on the BDSM spectrum was in masochism, which involves deriving pleasure from the experience of pain. …What connects Republicans and Democrats, I believe, is that their fantasies are at least partly driven by what they can’t have. …Interestingly, the single most commonly fantasized-about politician among both parties was the same: Sarah Palin (though Republicans were much more likely to have Palin fantasies than Democrats). Following Palin, the next most frequently mentioned politicians in Republicans’ fantasies were John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Nikki Haley. While, after Palin, Democrats fantasized about Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.

Maybe I’m strange, but I’ve never met or seen an American politician that piqued my interest.

Though I will confess to occasionally having quirky libertarian fantasies, one of which does involve sex.

Speaking of quirky, folks on the left appear to have more issues with mental health.

Since I’ve asserted that folks on the left are “neurotic” and “guilt-ridden,” part of me agrees with these findings.

Though, to be fair, maybe they’re just more likely to visit healthcare providers.

I’ll conclude with what I will conveniently characterize as the most insightful research.

Three scholars, in an article for Current Psychology, find that libertarians are the smartest.

Previous studies consistently showed that analytic cognitive style (ACS) is negatively correlated with social conservatism, but there are mixed findings concerning its relation with economic conservatism. Most tests have relied on a unidimensional (liberal-conservative) operationalization of political orientation. Libertarians tend not only to identify themselves as conservative on this scale but also to score higher on ACS than liberals and conservatives.

Here’s the relevant chart from the study, courtesy of Rolf Degen.

Liberals can take some solace in that they score above conservatives, though there’s not much that can be said for self-identified moderates.

P.S. I started this column by noting that I want to understand how to be a more persuasive advocate for liberty. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but at least I can take comfort in that I will never be as deluded as this columnist who thinks he has discovered a way of becoming a more persuasive advocate for statism.

P.P.S. If you like this type of research, my previous columns on supposedly innate differences across ideologies can be found here, here, and here.

P.P.P.S. And here’s the research on the differences between libertarians and conservatives.

P.P.P.P.S. Here’s a humorous look at the difference between conservatives, liberals, and Texans.

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Nine days ago, I wrote about Dana Milbank scoring an “own goal” because he claimed we needed bigger government to deal with coronavirus, yet all the nations he cited for their effective responses actually have a much smaller fiscal burden than the United States.

Today, we have the Twitter equivalent of an “own goal.”

R.D. Hale, a British guy from the #SocialistCampaignGroup tweeted that he wants to move to an island and start a new country with Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good idea. I certainly wouldn’t be upset if hard-core leftists decided to leave the United States (there’s even a satirical version of this idea).

But Tom Harwood, as you can see, had a response that was far more clever.

Ouch! I don’t know if “own goal” does this justice. This is a brutal dunk by Harwood on Hale.

Especially since both Sanders and Corbyn actually have offered praise for Castro and Cuba.

The bottom line is that the utter misery and deprivation of the Cuban people is a pretty good indication of what would happen if lunatics like Sanders and Corbyn ever had free rein to impose their policies in the U.S. or U.K.

P.S. Here’s the best counter-tweet of 2019.

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Starting with a column about government-subsidized debt and ending yesterday with a column about why government shouldn’t own airlines, I’ve written about coronavirus-related issues for 14 straight days. And since that’s the topic now dominating the national discussion, I expect many more coronavirus-themed columns will be forthcoming.

But I’m going to make a detour to normalcy today and write about the person who is probably America’s second-worst president in terms of economic policy.

No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama or George W. Bush.  Or even Herbert Hoover.

That’s a list of bad presidents, to be sure, but none of them are in the same league as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

As I’ve explained before, FDR deserves scorn for doubling down on Hoover’s awful policies of higher taxes, increased spending, and more intervention – thus keeping the economy mired in misery all through the 1930s.

Amazingly, some people applaud his performance. Including some self-described conservatives.

Conrad Black, in an article for American Greatness, actually wants readers to think of FDR as a conservative.

My motive is…to correct the widespread misperception of Roosevelt as a socialist and somehow the person responsible for the present leviathan-state. …Roosevelt wanted to make America safe for wealthy people like himself. …he wanted a contented working-class and agrarian class, as he thought equitable in a rich country, and the only assurance against social instability. …retroactive quarterbacks have never suggested any serious alternatives to what Roosevelt did and no significant part of his domestic legislation has been seriously altered… When it comes to long-term social and economic policy, Roosevelt gets a solid B-plus. …Roosevelt acknowledged that the New Deal would, and did, make many mistakes, but it saved the country.

Saved the country?!? According to academic experts, the New Deal lengthened and deepened the downturn.

Why? Because FDR adopted so many bad policies. For instance, increased the top tax rate to 79 percent (and fortunately failed in his effort to impose a 100 percent tax rate). He cartelized the economy based on fascist economic principles. And he doubled the burden of federal spending in just eight years.

I’ll discuss more about FDR’s policy mistakes at the end of this column, but I also want to address his upside-down view of freedom.

He wanted to replace the Founding Fathers’ vision of “negative liberty” (the right to be left alone) with the redistributionst concept of “positive liberty” (the right to get handouts).

Here’s one of his speeches, which I first shared back in 2011.

I’m not the only one to find this point of view to be repugnant.

Here’s some of what James Bovard wrote last year, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

Franklin Roosevelt did more than any other modern president to corrupt Americans’ understanding of freedom. …his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech…declared: “The third [freedom] is freedom from want . . . everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear . . . anywhere in the world.” Proclaiming a goal of freedom from fear meant that government should fill the role in daily life previously filled by God and religion. Politicians are the biggest fearmongers, and “freedom from fear” would justify seizing new power in response to every bogus federal alarm. …Three years later, …Roosevelt called for a “Second Bill of Rights” and asserted that “True individual freedom can’t exist without economic security.” And security, according to FDR, included “the right to a useful and remunerative job,” a “decent home,” “good health,” and “good education.” Thus, if…someone was in bad health, then that person would be considered as having been deprived of his freedom, and somehow it would be the government’s fault. Freedom thus required boundless control over health care.

Amen.

There is no “right” to other people’s earnings.

Let’s now return to FDR’s specific policies.

My contribution to this discussion is a back-of-the-envelope assessment of the policies adopted while he was in office. As you can see, there were many anti-growth policies (and the policies that did the most damage get the biggest bars).

Trade was the only area where he consistently pushed policy in the right direction.

P.S. According to presidential scholars such as Al Felzenberg, President Roosevelt didn’t have firm views on economics and his administration was characterized by haphazard shifts in policy depending on which group of advisors (the reflationists, corporatists, Keynesians, anti-trust zealots, etc) were most influential.

P.P.S. FDR’s Treasury Secretary admitted the failure of the New Deal in 1939, telling a congressional committee that “We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work… I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started…and an enormous debt, to boot.”

P.P.P.S. I wrote above that FDR is “probably America’s second-worst president.” I’m hesitant to give a definitive answer, in part because Nixon was so terrible. More important, the wretched track record of Woodrow Wilson (creator of the income tax and Federal Reserve, as well as an odious racist) suggests he may deserve the prize for being the worst of the worst.

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The coronavirus obviously is bad news, but I repeated my long-held view in this interview that excessive government intervention is the greatest threat to China’s prosperity.

My hypothesis is that the coronavirus almost certainly will be a short-term challenge.

What’s far more worrisome, especially in the long run, is that government has far too large a role in China’s economy. Yes, there was a good period of pro-market liberalization starting in 1979, but there’s been very little progress this century.

As a result, China only ranks #113 according to Economic Freedom of the World. Which makes the Chinese tiger a paper tiger.

Let’s look at five potential threats to China’s economy.

1. Coronavirus. We don’t know whether the disease is contained or getting worse. But unless it becomes a pandemic like the 1918 Spanish Flu, the effects presumably will be transitory. This is why I downplayed its importance during the interview.

2. Trump’s trade war. I gave this issue a passing mention in the discussion. Trump is hurting both America and China with his trade war, but China is probably bearing a heavier burden. In an ideal world, China wouldn’t practice mercantilism. But in that ideal world, Trump would have addressed the issue more effectively by utilizing the World Trade Organization.

3. Hong Kong. The host gave this issue a passing mention at the end of the interview. I’ll merely note that a Chinese crackdown would have an adverse impact on how global investors view China.

Now let’s look at the two biggest threat’s to China’s long-run prosperity.

And we’ll start with an issue that I failed to mention in the interview (though I have discussed it in the past).

4. Bad demographics. This is a global problem, but it is especially acute in China because of the coercive one-child policy. That oppressive system has been relaxed, but that may be too little, too late. Here are some excerpts from a column by George Will.

Demography does not dictate any nation’s destiny, but it shapes every nation’s trajectory… Although China’s working-age population (there, 15-64) almost doubled between 1975 and 2010, fertility has been below the replacement level for at least 25 years. China’s population will shrink after 2027; its working-age population has been shrinking for five years and will be at least 100 million smaller by 2040… Furthermore, there will be “tens of millions of surplus men” in China because during the “one-child” policy (1979-2015), many parents chose abortion rather than the birth of a girl.

5. Bad public policy. I’ve saved this issue for last because it’s the most important and merits the most attention.

A column in the Wall Street Journal by the Hudson Institute’s John Lee neatly summarizes the problem.

The model involves offering state-owned enterprises and national champions such as Huawei cheap finance and privileged domestic-market access at the expense of an independent private sector. China showers state businesses with subsidies… The current Chinese model is self-defeating. Less-deserving companies continue to receive the bulk of finance and opportunity. The staggering misallocation of capital is worsening, which makes the mushrooming debt even harder to manage. And allocation of opportunity is political. This means that the private sector, and therefore household income, will continue to remain artificially suppressed… China’s economy is inefficient, bloated, dysfunctional—plagued by institutions and policies that are not fit for their purposes.

I mentioned in the interview that President Xi may be moving China in the wrong direction.

This article, published last month in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, augments my concern.

China has implemented a new regulation to officially put Communist Party committees at the centre of power in running state-owned enterprises, a move reflecting Beijing’s strong desire to enhance the control of its vast state sector. …“All major business and management decisions must be discussed by the Communist Party organ before being presented to the board of directors or management for decision,” according to the regulation. …For those enterprises under the direct control of the central government, the board of directors must include a “special deputy party secretary” who takes no management role and is exclusively responsible for “party building”. The first role of the directors or executives who are party members is to execute the will of the party in performing their duties, it added.

I’ll cite one more article, this one by Desmond Lachman for the Bulwark.

In much the same way as our fears about Soviet and Japanese economic dominance proved to be illusory, there is good reason to think that China’s rapid economic rise will prove to be another paper tiger. …One factor..that does not bode well for China’s future economic performance is President Xi’s apparent intention to destroy the foundation on which China’s economic miracle rested. He is reversing the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, aimed at giving the private sector increased room to breathe dynamism into the Chinese economy. Fearful of the challenge that a thriving Chinese private sector might pose to the Communist Party’s political hold on the country, President Xi is now reestablishing party discipline and increasing the role of China’s state enterprises. …Even more troubling for China’s long-run economic outlook are its highly unbalanced economy and it’s gargantuan credit bubble. …China has a massive amount of unused industrial capacity and an enormous overhang of unoccupied housing and commercial property.

The bottom line, as I stated in the interview, is that China is in trouble. It’s been pursuing a toxic combination of Keynesianism and industrial policy.

My hope, for what it’s worth, is that China’s leaders reverse the current trend and resume the 1979-2000 path of economic liberalization that was so successful in reducing mass poverty.

To modify an existing phrase, let’s call it Reaganism with Chinese characteristics. If this chart is any indication, that would be a good idea.

Or how about Hong Kong with Chinese characteristics?

P.S. Amazingly, both the IMF and OECD want to further hurt the Chinese economy with big tax hikes.

P.P.S. Discouragingly, there are folks in the United States (advocates of ideas such as “national conservatism” and “common-good capitalism“) who think the United States should mimic aspects of China’s failed industrial policy.

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Politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez say that their goal of “democratic socialism” is very different from the socialism of Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela, as well as the socialism of the former Soviet Union.

And they doubtlessly would get very upset if anyone equated their ideology with the “national socialism” of Hitler’s Germany.

Such angst would be understandable. There are profound differences among the various versions of socialism. At the risk of understatement, a politician who wants to take my money is much better than one who wants to take my life.

From the perspective of economic policy, though, there’s a common link. All strains of socialism reject free enterprise. They want to replace capitalism with some sort of regime based on government planning and coercion.

This observation gets some people rather upset.

In a column for the Washington Post, Ronald Granieri of the Foreign Policy Research Institute expresses dismay that some people are pointing out that Hitler’s National Socialist Workers’ Party was, well, socialist.

Did you know that “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist”? That means that Hitler and his henchmen were all socialists. …There is only one problem: This argument is untrue. Although the Nazis did pursue a level of government intervention in the economy that would shock doctrinaire free marketeers, their “socialism” was at best a secondary element in their appeal. …The Nazi regime had little to do with socialism, despite it being prominently included in the name of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. …The NSDAP’s 1920 party program, the 25 points, included passages denouncing banks, department stores and “interest slavery,” which suggested a quasi-Marxist rejection of free markets. But these were also typical criticisms in the anti-Semitic playbook …linking socialism and Nazism to critique leftist ideas became a political weapon in the post-World War II period, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the Cold War followed directly on the heels of World War II. Scholars as diverse as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Hannah Arendt used the larger concept of “totalitarianism” to fuse the two. …National Socialism preserved private property, while also putting the entire resources of society at the service of an expansionist and racist national vision, which included the conquest and murderous subjugation of other peoples. It makes no sense to think that the sole, or even the primary, negative aspect of this regime was the fact that it used state power to allocate financial resources.

Mr. Granieri makes some very good points. I’m not a historian, but I assume he’s correct in stating that Nazis hated capitalism in large part because it was associated with Jews.

And he’s definitely correct in stating that there are much more important reasons to despise Nazis other than their version of socialism (private ownership, but government control, often referred to as fascism).

But none of that changes that fact that all forms of socialism involve hostility to capitalism. Especially among the most repugnant forms of socialism.

Indeed, Nazism and communism are like different sides of the same coin. Joshua Hofford, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, examines the commonalities and differences between the two ideologies.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels are the fathers of both…the swastika and the hammer-and-sickle. …The platform for Soviet socialism was nearly identical to that of National Socialism under the Nazi Party. Though the application of Soviet socialism was Marxian in nature—committed to international socialist revolution and the elimination of class enemies—and National Socialism under the Nazi Party was instituted to the elimination of racial enemies, both were dedicated to the remaking of mankind… Endemic to both Soviet and Nazi socialism, the destruction of class and racial enemies was a literal, not figurative, stage of revolution. …both versions of socialism were dedicated to constructing a new social reality by any means necessary… In addition to belonging to the shared brotherhood of worldwide socialism, clearly, both communism and Nazism were equally totalitarian. …The Nazis rejected the call to international revolution and the class warfare of their Soviet Marxist kin, however, this made them no less socialist. All substantial power and ownership of German business under the Third Reich, while managed and owned by individuals, was in the hands of the state. Price controls, salary caps, and production quotas were set by the nation and left owners to navigate a glut of bureaucracy.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Juliana Pilon shares a historical tidbit to illustrate the disdain for capitalism that characterized Nazis and communists.

Known officially as the Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Hitler-Stalin pact…stunned the world. …As German negotiator Karl Schnurre had observed…, “there is one common element in the ideologies of Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union: opposition to the capitalist democracies. Neither we nor Italy have anything in common with the capitalist West. Therefore it seems to us rather unnatural that a socialist state would stand on the side of the Western democracies.” …capitalist democracy was their common enemy.

And Michael Rieger, writing for FEE, notes that there are genuine differences among different strains of socialism, though all involve a powerful state.

The Nazis didn’t call their ideology “national socialism” because they thought it sounded good. They were fervently opposed to capitalism. The Nazi Party’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, even once remarked that he’d sooner live under Bolshevism than capitalism. …why…would the Nazis call themselves “socialists”? In part, it’s because the term “socialism” has been constantly evolving and changing since its inception. …Marxist-Leninists came to more narrowly define “socialism” to mean the intermediary period between capitalism and communism where the state owned the means of production and centrally managed the economy. In establishing national socialism, the Nazis sought to redefine socialism yet again. National socialism began as a fusion of socialist ideas of a technocratically-managed economy with Völkisch nationalism, a deeply anti-Semitic form of German nationalism. …The Nazis also distinguished themselves from Marxists in their support for private property, although this came with some caveats. The Nazi government did not own the means of production in Germany, but they certainly controlled them. They set up control boards, cartels, and state-sponsored monopolies and konzerns, which they then carefully planned and regulated. …democratic socialists don’t believe in total government ownership of the means of production, nor do they wish to technocratically manage the economy as the Nazis did. …The wide variance between utopian socialism, communism, national socialism, and democratic socialism makes it remarkably easy for members of each ideology to wag their fingers at the others and say, “That wasn’t real socialism.” …all self-described socialists have shared the belief that top-down answers to society’s problems are superior to the bottom-up answers created by the free market.

To add to the above excerpts, here are two passages from Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties.

  • Page 133: “Hitler took over a small proletarian group called the German Workers’ Party…and reorganized its economic aims into a radical twenty-five point programme: …abolition of unearned incomes, state to take over trusts and share profits of industry, land for national needs to be expropriated without compensation. he also added the words ‘National Socialist’ to its title. …the radical and socialist element in his programme always remained strong.”
  • Page 293: “He regarded himself as a socialist, and the essence of his socialism was that every individual or group in the state should unhesitatingly work for national policy. So it did not matter who owned the actual factory so long as those managing it did what they were told. …’Our socialism reaches much deeper. …Why should we need to socialize the banks and the factories? We are socializing the people.”

I’ll close by re-sharing my humble contribution to this discussion, which is a triangle to replace the traditional right-vs-left line.

My triangle acknowledges that there are differences between communists and Nazis (as well as between populists and democratic socialists, and between Republicans and Democrats).

But it makes the key point that there are ever-greater losses of economic liberty as one descends from libertarianism.

And the closer you get to the bottom of the triangle, the greater the likelihood that you lose political liberty as well.

P.S. I also recommend reading what Friedrich Hayek, Dan Hannan, and Thomas Sowell have written on this topic.

P.P.S. I also think we can learn something from this tweet by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

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Given their overt statism, I’ve mostly focused on the misguided policies being advocated by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

But that doesn’t mean Joe Biden’s platform is reasonable or moderate.

Ezra Klein of Vox unabashedly states that the former Vice President’s policies are “far to Obama’s left.”

This is an issue where folks on both ends of the spectrum agree.

In a column for the right-leaning American Spectator, George Neumayr also says Biden is not a moderate.

Biden likes to feed the mythology that he is still a moderate. …This is, after all, a pol who giddily whispered in Barack Obama’s ear that a massive government takeover of health care “was a big f—ing deal,”…and now pronouncing Obamacare only a baby step toward a more progressive future. It can’t be repeated enough that “Climate Change” Joe doesn’t give a damn about the ruinous consequences of extreme environmentalism for Rust Belt industries. His Climate Change plans read like something Al Gore might have scribbled to him in a note. …On issue after issue, Biden is taking hardline liberal stances. …“I have the most progressive record of anybody running.” …He is far more comfortable on the Ellen show than on the streets of Scranton. He has given up Amtrak for private jets, and, like his lobbyist brother and grifter son, has cashed in on his last name.

If you want policy details, the Wall Street Journal opined on his fiscal plan.

Mr. Biden has previously promised to spend $1.7 trillion over 10 years on a Green New Deal, $750 billion on health care, and $750 billion on higher education. To pay for it all, he’s set out $3.4 trillion in tax increases. This is more aggressive, for the record, than Hillary Clinton’s proposed tax increases in 2016, which totaled $1.4 trillion, per an analysis at the time from the left-of-center Tax Policy Center. In 2008 Barack Obama pledged to raise taxes on the rich while cutting them on net by $2.9 trillion. Twice as many tax increases as the last presidential nominee: That’s now the “moderate” Democratic position. …raising the top rate for residents of all states. …a huge increase on today’s top capital-gains rate of 23.8%… This would put rates on long-term capital gains at their highest since the 1970s. …Raise the corporate tax rate to 28% from 21%. This would…vault the U.S. corporate rate back to near the top in the developed world. …the bottom line is big tax increases on people, capital and businesses. There’s nothing pro-growth in the mix.

And the ever-rigorous Peter Suderman of Reason wrote about Biden’s statist agenda.

Biden released a proposal to raise a slew of new taxes, mostly on corporations and high earners. He would increase tax rates on capital gains, increase the tax rate for households earning more than $510,000 annually, double the minimum tax rate for multinational corporations, impose a minimum tax on large companies whose tax filings don’t show them paying a certain percentage of their earnings, and undo many of the tax cuts included in the 2017 tax law. …as The New York Times reports, Biden’s proposed tax hikes are more than double what Hillary Clinton called for during the 2016 campaign. …Hillary Clinton…pushed the party gently to the left. Four years later, before the campaign is even over, the party’s supposed moderates are proposing double or even quadruple the new taxes she proposed.

The former Veep isn’t just a fan of higher taxes and more spending.

He also likes nanny-state policies.

Joe Biden says he is 100% in favor of banning plastic bags in the U.S. …let’s take a quick walk through the facts about single-use plastic bags at the retail level. …the plastic bags typically handed out by retailers make up only 0.6% of visible litter. Or put another way, for every 1,000 pieces of litter, only six are plastic bags. …They make up less than 1% of landfills by weight… 90% of the plastic bags found at sea streamed in from eight rivers in Asia and two in Africa. Only about 1% of all plastic in the ocean is from America. …Thicker plastic bags have to be used at least 11 times before they yield any environmental benefits. This is much longer than their typical lifespans. …Though it might seem almost innocuous, Biden’s support for a bag ban is symptom of a greater sickness in the Democratic Party. It craves unfettered political power.

Let’s not forget, by the way, that Biden (like most politicians in Washington) is corrupt.

Here are some excerpts from a Peter Schweizer column in the New York Post.

Political figures have long used their families to route power and benefits for their own self-enrichment. …one particular politician — Joe Biden — emerges as the king of the sweetheart deal, with no less than five family members benefiting from his largesse, favorable access and powerful position for commercial gain. …Joe Biden’s younger brother, James, has been an integral part of the family political machine… HillStone announced that James Biden would be joining the firm as an executive vice president. James appeared to have little or no background in housing construction, but…the firm was starting negotiations to win a massive contract in war-torn Iraq. Six months later, the firm announced a contract to build 100,000 homes. …A group of minority partners, including James Biden, stood to split about $735 million. …With the election of his father as vice president, Hunter Biden launched businesses fused to his father’s power that led him to lucrative deals with a rogue’s gallery of governments and oligarchs around the world. …Hunter’s involvement with an entity called Burnham Financial Group…Burnham became the center of a federal investigation involving a $60 million fraud scheme against one of the poorest Indian tribes in America, the Oglala Sioux. …the firm relied on his father’s name and political status as a means of both recruiting pension money into the scheme.

I only excerpted sections about Biden’s brother and son. You should read the entire article.

And even the left-leaning U.K.-based Guardian has the same perspective on Biden’s oleaginous behavior.

Biden has a big corruption problem and it makes him a weak candidate. …I can already hear the howls: But look at Trump! Trump is 1,000 times worse! You don’t need to convince me. …But here’s the thing: nominating a candidate like Biden will make it far more difficult to defeat Trump. It will allow Trump to muddy the water, to once again pretend he is the one “draining the swamp”, running against Washington culture. …With Biden, we are basically handing Trump a whataboutism playbook. …his record represents the transactional, grossly corrupt culture in Washington that long precedes Trump.

I’ll close by simply sharing some objective data about Biden’s voting behavior when he was a Senator.

According to the National Taxpayers Union, he finished his time on Capitol Hill with eleven-consecutive “F” scores (hey, at least he was consistent!).

And he also was the only Senator who got a lifetime rating of zero from the Club for Growth.

Though if you want to be generous, his lifetime rating was actually 0.025 percent.

Regardless, that was still worse than Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

So if Biden become President, it’s safe to assume that America will accelerate on the already-baked-in-the-cake road to Greece.

P.S. Of course, we’ll be on that path even if Biden doesn’t become President, so perhaps the moral of the story is to buy land in Australia.

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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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Many libertarians support capitalism because of ethics and morality. Simply stated, they want an economic system based on voluntary exchange compared to statist alternatives (socialism, fascism, communism, etc) that rely on government coercion.

I also like the non-aggression principle, so I certainly don’t want to dissuade anyone from supporting free markets for that reason.

But one of my main goals is to show people that economic liberty also is the best approach from the utilitarian perspective.

This is why I share so many examples showing how market-oriented jurisdictions out-perform statist nations over multi-decade periods.

I want to build on this empirical foundation by sharing some 2009 research from Professor Peter Leeson. Here’s the abstract from his study.

According to a popular view that I call “two cheers for capitalism,” capitalism’s effect on development is ambiguous and mixed. This paper empirically investigates that view. I find that it’s wrong. Citizens in countries that became more capitalist over the last quarter century became wealthier, healthier, more educated, and politically freer. Citizens in countries that became significantly less capitalist over this period endured stagnating income, shortening life spans, smaller gains in education, and increasingly oppressive political regimes. The data unequivocally evidence capitalism’s superiority for development. Full-force cheerleading for capitalism is well deserved and three cheers are in order instead of two.

Here are his data sources.

I consider the trajectory of capitalism and four “core” development indicators in countries that have embraced and rejected capitalism over the past quarter century. These categories are average income, life expectancy, years of schooling, and democracy. …My data are drawn from several sources. The first is the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Project (2008), which provides data on the extent of capitalism across countries and over time. …I get data for my development indicators from Shleifer (2009), who collects his information from several standard sources. His data on countries’ GDP per capita and life expectancies are from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (2006). His data on education and democracy are from the Barro-Lee (2000) dataset and the Polity IV Database (2000) respectively.

He then compares nations that moved toward free markets with those that gravitated to statism.

The results are unambiguous.

The data are clear: countries that became more capitalist became much wealthier. The average country that became more capitalist over the last 25 years saw its GDP per capita (PPP) rise from about $7600 to nearly $11,800—a 43% increase. If rapidly rising wealth deserves cheering, so does capitalism. What about longevity? All the money in the world doesn’t mean anything if you’re not alive to spend it on things that improve your life. Figure 2b charts the movement of average life expectancy at birth in countries that became more capitalist over the last quarter century at 5-year intervals. Growing capitalism is clearly associated with growing life expectancy. In the average country that became more capitalist over the last 25 years, the average citizen gained nearly half a decade in life expectancy. … In the average country that became more capitalist, the average number of years of schooling in the population rose from 4.7 to just over 6. …Countries that became more capitalist over the last 20 years became dramatically more democratic.

Here are the charts showing great results from capitalism.

Now let’s look at what Professor Lesson discovered about nations that moved in the wrong direction.

The good news is that there weren’t that many since this was the era when the “Washington Consensus” held sway.

Although most countries became more capitalist over the past quarter century, not every country did. …Fortunately, only five countries became significantly less capitalist over the last quarter century when most everyone else was busy reaping the rewards of becoming more capitalist. These countries are: Myanmar, Rwanda, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Each of these countries lost more than 1 point of economic freedom over the period on Fraser’s 10-point scale. This decline translates into a 20–40% loss of economic freedom depending on the country one considers.

Unsurprisingly, bad things happen when nations suffer a decline in economic liberty.

Here’s what happened to the four key indicators in countries that moved toward statism.

Professor Leeson’s conclusions are very blunt…and very accurate.

Unless one prefers poverty, premature death, ignorance, and political oppression to wealth, longevity, knowledge, and freedom, less capitalism deserve no cheers. …Global capitalism’s effect is clear to the point of smacking one in the face: it has made the world unequivocally better off.

Amen.

We know the recipe for growth and prosperity. The challenge is convincing self-interested politicians to reduce their power and control over the economy.

P.S. I’m still waiting for any of my left-leaning friends to provide an answer – even just a partial answer – to my two-question challenge.

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Lord Acton famously noted that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I need to develop something similar about socialism. Based on the statism spectrum, it could be something like “socialism deprives and absolute socialism deprives absolutely.”

In other words, the bigger the government, the worse the results.

And when the government controls everything, the consequences can be catastrophic. Horrifyingly catastrophic, as Marian Tupy explains.

America’s college-educated youth…are too young to remember the Cold War and few study history. It is, therefore, timely to remind the millennials of what socialism wrought – especially in some of the world’s poorest countries. Those of us who remember the early 1980s will always remember the images of starving Ethiopian children. …these were the innocent victims of the Derg – a group of Marxist militants who took over the Ethiopian government… Between 1983 and 1985, some 400,000 people starved to death. …in 1999, Robert Mugabe, the 92-year-old Marxist dictator who came to power in 1980, embarked on a catastrophic “land reform” program. The program saw the nationalization of privately-held farmland and the expulsion of non-African farmers and businessmen. The result was a collapse of agricultural output, the second highest hyperinflation in recorded history that peaked at 89.7 sextillion or 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000 percent per year and an unemployment rate of 94 percent. Thousands of Zimbabweans died of hunger and disease despite massive international help.

It turns out that governments have played big roles in some of the worst famines in recent memory.

Benjamin Zycher’s table of the greatest famines of the 20th century. …six out of the 10 worst famines happened in socialist countries. Other famines, including those in Nigeria, Somalia and Bangladesh, were partly a result of war and partly a result of a government’s economic mismanagement.

Here’s a table with some of the grim totals. Unsurprisingly, Pol Pot’s Cambodia is at the top of the list.

In some cases, such as Cambodia and Ukraine, starvation was a policy choice by evil communist governments (are there any other kinds?).

In other cases, the total state control of economic life produced famine as a byproduct.

In either case, Marian has a suggestion for some of today’s vapid millennials.

Wherever it has been tried, from the Soviet Union in 1917 to Venezuela in 2015, socialism has failed. Socialists have promised a utopia marked by equality and abundance. Instead, they have delivered tyranny and starvation. Young Americans should keep that in mind.

And if they forget, here’s an excellent cartoon from Pat Cross that may be easier to remember (h/t: Mark Perry).

P.S. The table looks at starvation in the 20th century. Let’s not forget that people currently are dying of malnutrition in the socialist hellhole of Venezuela (the lucky ones raid zoos and eat household pets for food).

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I’m a big fan of globalization, so does that make me a globalist?

That depends on what is meant by that term. If it means free trade and peaceful interaction with other nations, the answer is yes.

But if it means global governance by anti-market bureaucracies such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the answer is a resounding no.

So I have mixed feelings about this video from Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute.

I can’t resist nit-picking on some of his points.

While I have disagreements with Dalibor, that definitely doesn’t put me in the same camp as Donald Trump.

The President is an incoherent mix. He combines odious protectionism with mostly-empty rhetoric about globalism. And he does all that without understanding issues – and, in some cases, his actions are contrary to his rhetoric.

Dan Henninger wrote about these issues two days ago for the Wall Street Journal.

He wisely warns that failures by national governments (most notably unaffordable welfare states and incompetent administrative states) are creating openings for unpalatable alternatives.

Global governance is one distressing possibility. Henninger worries about Chinese-style administrative authoritarianism.

President Trump at the United Nations this week elaborated on his long-running antagonism toward globalism. …There is merit to these concerns, but I think the critics of “globalism,” including most prominently Mr. Trump, underestimate the near-term danger of the serious difficulties appearing today in national democratic governance. Democracies maintain their legitimacy in the public’s eye only if they demonstrate a reasonable capacity to address society’s inevitably complex challenges. …it’s clear that many of the 21st century’s independent nations are having a remarkably difficult time executing their sovereign responsibilities. …Mr. Trump’s concerns about undemocratic governance by remote international bureaucracies are plausible, but the greater threat is more imminent. If the expansion of an increasingly dysfunctional administrative state inside the world’s sovereign democracies is inexorable and unreformable, the future will belong to China’s brand of administrative authoritarianism. …Elizabeth Warren and her multiple plans—heavily dependent on criminal prosecutions and intense oversight—is flirting with a milder version of this future.

Henninger is certainly correct that nations mostly get in trouble because of their own mistakes.

For instance, I’ve pointed out that the fiscal crisis in Europe should not be blamed on the euro.

That being said, global governance often creates moral hazard, which tends to exacerbate and encourage bad policy by national governments.

Let’s now look at an interesting column that John Bolton (Trump’s former National Security Advisor) wrote on global governance for the U.K.-based Times back in 2016. Here are some of the key passages.

He makes the should-be-obvious point that not all international bureaucracies are alike.

…international organisations sometimes act as if they are governments rather than associations of governments and sprout bureaucracies with pretensions beyond those of cosseted elites in national capitals. …International bodies take many different forms, and it serves no analytical purpose to treat them interchangeably. Nato, for example, is not equivalent to the United Nations. Neither is equivalent to the European Union. Each has different objectives, and different implications for constitutional and democratic sovereignty. …Nato is America’s kind of international partnership: a classic politico-military alliance of nation states. It has never purported to assume sovereign functions, and is as distant as is imaginable from the EU paradigm.

He explains that some of them – most notably the IMF – are counterproductive and should be shut down.

Proposals to reform the UN and its affiliated bodies such as the World Bank and the IMF are almost endless. The real question is whether serious, sweeping reform of these organisations…is ever possible. …In 1998, during the Asian financial crisis, the former secretaries of the Treasury William Simon and George Shultz, and Walter Wriston, a former chairman of Citibank, wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “The IMF is ineffective, unnecessary, and obsolete. We do not need another IMF, as Mr. [George] Soros recommends. Once the Asian crisis is over, we should abolish the one we have.” …We should consider privatising all the development banks… We should ask why US taxpayers are compelled to provide subsidised interest rates for loans by international development banks.

Amen.

He also opines about Brexit.

…the Brexit referendum was, above all else, a reassertion of British sovereignty, a declaration of independence from would-be rulers who, while geographically close, were remote from the peasantry they sought to rule. …The Brexit decision was deplored by British and American elites alike… It does not surprise Americans that British elites have not reconciled themselves to losing… London and Washington can fashion a new economic relationship, perhaps involving Canada, with the potential for significant economic growth. Let the EU wallow in strangling economic regulation, and the euro albatross that Britain wisely never joined.

He’s right, especially the final sentence of that excerpt.

I’ll conclude by reiterating my observation that we should distinguish between good globalization and bad globalization.

The good kind involves trade, peaceful interaction, and jurisdictional competition, all of which are consistent with sovereignty.

The bad kind of globalism involves international bureaucracies acting as supranational governments – almost always (as Nobel laureate Edward Prescott observed) with the goal of enabling and facilitating a larger burden of government.

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Having been inspired by Ronald Reagan’s libertarian-ish message (and track record), I’ve always been suspicious of alternative forms of conservatism for the simple reason that they always seem to mean bigger government.

To be fair, proponents of all these approaches always paid homage to the role of markets, so we’re not talking about Bernie Sanders-type nuttiness.

But I don’t want to travel in the wrong direction, even if only at 10 miles-per-hour rather than 90 miles-per-hour.

Now there’s a new alternative to Reaganism called “national conservatism.” It’s loosely defined, as you can see by reports from both left-leaning outlets (New York, New Republic) and right-leaning outlets (Townhall, Daily Signal).

There are parts of this new movement that are appealing, at least if I’m reading them correctly. Proponents are appropriately skeptical of global governance, though maybe not for the reasons that arouse my antipathy. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend in this battle.

They also don’t seem very fond of nation building, which also pleases me. And I also am somewhat sympathetic to their arguments about national unity – assuming it’s based on the proper definition of patriotism.

But their economic views, at best, are worrisome. And, as George Will opines, they’re sometimes awful.

…“national conservatives”…advocate unprecedented expansion of government to purge America of excessive respect for market forces and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. …The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass advocates “industrial policy” — what other socialists call “economic planning”… He especially means subsidizing manufacturing..he admits that as government, i.e., politics, permeates the economy on manufacturing’s behalf, “regulatory capture,” other forms of corruption and “market distortions will emerge.” Emerge? Using government to create market distortions is national conservatism’s agenda. …Their agenda is much more ambitious than President Richard M. Nixon’s 1971 imposition of wage and price controls, which were temporary fiascos. Their agenda is even more ambitious than the New Deal’s cartelization of industries, which had the temporary (and unachieved) purpose of curing unemployment. What national conservatives propose is government fine-tuning the economy’s composition and making sure resources are “well” distributed, as the government (i.e., the political class) decides, forever. …Although the national conservatives’ anti-capitalism purports to be populist, it would further empower the administrative state’s faux aristocracy of administrators who would decide which communities and economic sectors should receive “well”-allocated resources. Furthermore, national conservatism is paternalistic populism. This might seem oxymoronic, but so did “Elizabeth Warren conservatives” until national conservatives emerged as such.

Since Nixon and FDR were two of America’s worst presidents, Will is drawing a very harsh comparison.

To give the other side, here are excerpts from a New York Times column by Oren Cass.

…a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy. Genuine prosperity depends upon people working as productive contributors to their society, through which they can achieve self-sufficiency, support their families, participate in their communities, and raise children prepared to do the same.

None of this sounds bad.

Heck, it sounds good. I’m in favor of strong families and strong communities.

But what does this rhetoric mean? Here’s where I start to worry.

Crucially, while a labor market left alone will seek an efficient equilibrium, economic theory never promises that the equilibrium will be a socially desirable, inclusive one. A genuine conservatism values markets as powerful mechanisms that foster choice, promote competition and deliver growth, but always in service to the larger end of a cohesive society in which people can thrive. …In some cases, …conservatives will head in new directions or even reverse course. …an insistence that workers throughout the labor market share in productivity growth……longstanding hostility toward organized labor will give way to an emphasis on reform. …new forms of organizing through which workers can support one another, engage with management and contribute to civil society should be a conservative priority.

And my worry turns to unfettered angst when I read some of the specific ideas that Cass mentions.

…a wage subsidy delivered directly into each low-wage paycheck…skepticism of unfettered international trade…legislation that would require the Federal Reserve to close the trade deficit by taxing foreign purchases of American assets.

To put it mildly, more redistribution, more protectionism, and taxes on investment is not a Reaganite agenda.

I’ll close with a political observation. Defenders of national conservatism have told me that the Reagan message is old and stale. It supposedly doesn’t apply to new problems in a new era.

Yet non-conservative Republicans lost twice to Obama while a hypothetical poll in 2013 showed Reagan would trounce Obama.

Some national conservatives point to Trump’s victory as an alternative, but I think that had more to do with Hillary Clinton. In any event, I very much doubt Trumpism is a long-term model for political success. Or economic success.

Maybe the real lesson is that good policy is good politics?

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Back in 2012, I wrote that the left’s hostility to tax competition had reached such a crazy level that some of them were even urging military action against low-tax jurisdictions.

Though I was amused to see that this warmongering focused on tiny jurisdictions such as Monaco and the Cayman Islands rather than the well-armed Swiss.

But maybe the militaristic statists are getting braver.

Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard, openly suggests in a column for Foreign Policy that it may be necessary to invade Brazil in the name of global warming.

…how far would you go to prevent irreversible environmental damage? In particular, do states have the right—or even the obligation—to intervene in a foreign country in order to prevent it from causing irreversible and possibly catastrophic harm to the environment? …I raise this issue in light of the news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is accelerating development of the Amazon rainforest… What should (or must) the international community do to prevent a misguided Brazilian president (or political leaders in other countries) from taking actions that could harm all of us?

In the article, Professor Walt mentions sanctions and protectionism as potential tools.

But he also thinks a military option should be on the table.

…international law authorizes countries to go to war for self-defense or when the Security Council authorizes military action. It’s even legal to attack another country’s territory preemptively, provided there is a well-founded basis…destroying the Amazon rainforest presents a clear and obvious threat to many other countries… I don’t mean to single out Brazil: It would be an equally radical step to threaten the United States or China if they refused to stop emitting so many greenhouse gases. …It might seem far-fetched to imagine states threatening military action to prevent this today, but it becomes more likely if worst-case estimates of our climate future turn out to be correct.

Wow.

Because I’m not a scientist, I generally don’t write about global warming. Or climate change, or climate crisis, or whatever it’s now being called.

But I am very skeptical of people who make absurd and hysterical arguments (climate change will cause genocide, it will cause AIDS, it is supported by racists, it means Cuba is better than the USA, it causes terrorism, it caused Brexit, etc) in order to advance an agenda that would dramatically expand the burden of government.

Some of them are simply scammers, using the issue to line their pockets with government grants.

But some of them are true believers who behave in very weird ways (don’t bathe, sterilize themselves, hand-cranked vibrators, choose death, etc).

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Cuba has a very sad history.

It traded a regular dictatorship for a communist dictatorship six decades ago, and the results have been predictably awful.

Oppression, persecution, rationing, spying, deprivation, and suffering are facts of life in that socialist hellhole.

For a while, it was subsidized by the Soviet Union, but that communist system eventually collapsed. More recently, it’s been subsidized by Venezuela, but now that socialist system also is collapsing.

And this means extra hardship for the people of Cuba.

Jose Nino explains one of the grim consequences of Cuba’s central planning.

Cuba is now implementing a rationing program to combat its very own shortages of basic goods. A CBC report indicates this program would cover basic items such as chicken, eggs, rice, beans, and soap. …When Fidel Castro took control of Cuba in 1959, the Cuban state maintained an iron grip on the economy. For decades, the country has been a communist garrison state with very little respect for property rights… Because of the economic dislocations caused by state control of many industries, the government has had to provide citizens with Libretas de Abastecimiento (supply booklets) to ration out basic goods like rice, sugar, and matches. …Cuba’s recent political behavior indicates that the country’s leadership still does not get basic economics. …After more than 50 years of embracing socialist governance, Cuba will have to learn that it needs to stick to the basic economic principles if it wants to break free from its long-standing cycle of poverty.

Bizarrely, there are still some proponents of the Cuban dictatorship.

Writing for CapX, Kristian Niemietz ponders this lingering semi-support for Cuba on the left.

…socialist experiments usually go through three stages, in terms of their reception by Western intellectuals. The first is a honeymoon period, during which they are widely held up as a glorious example of “real” socialism in action. The second is a period of angry defensiveness, during which some of the system’s failures are acknowledged, but blamed on external constraints. The third stage is the stage of retroactive disowning: intellectuals now claim that the country in question was never socialist, and that it is a cheap strawman to even mention it. The Western reception of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Vietnam and, more recently, Venezuela followed this pattern to a tee. Cuba, in contrast, is a bit of an outlier, in that the country seems to be permanently stuck somewhere between stages two and three. It may no longer attract widespread enthusiasm, but Cuban socialism has never completely gone the way of Soviet, Maoist, Vietnamese or North Korean socialism.

Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell have a book about statism and socialism that’s very informative. But also very entertaining.

Here are some excerpts from their chapter about a visit to Cuba.

In government-directed economies, a disproportionate amount of money is spent on what political leaders desire—typically, great Olympic sports teams, and a few showcase hotels and restaurants to impress foreigners. In Cuba’s case, this included the opulent Hotel Nacional… But we were on a mission to see what life was like inside Cuba’s socialist system. We couldn’t experience that by drinking Cuba libres at a fancy resort… Before the revolution, Cuba had a thriving urban middle class, along with widespread rural poverty. Twentieth-century socialists claimed socialism would deliver greater equality and out-produce capitalism by ending wasteful competition, business cycles, and predatory monopolies. Socialism hasn’t delivered the goods it promised in Cuba or anywhere else. Today, Cuba is a poor country made poorer by socialism. Socialism also gives tremendous power to government officials and bureaucrats who are the system’s planners—and with that power comes corruption, abuse, and tyranny. It is no accident that the worst democides of the twentieth century occurred in socialist countries like the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Nazi (National Socialist) Germany.

The book is basically a travelogue, mixed with economic insights that oscillate between amusing and horrifying.

The hotels are no good.

The Hotel Tritón’s decaying edifice was a crumbling tribute to Cuba’s central-planning problems. Cuba had the resources to make large capital investments in state-run enterprises when it received aid from the Soviet Union. But many of these hotels can’t generate enough revenue to sustain the initial investment. Cuban government planners then had to pick which hotels to subsidize to prevent decay. The Hotel Tritón didn’t make the cut. It was rotting, inside and out. And nobody cared because nobody owned it. …In a capitalist economy, entrepreneurs create businesses to make profits, which they earn by pleasing their customers. But in a socialist system, a bureaucrat decides which businesses can open, where they can operate, and what they can sell, and he really doesn’t care what the customer thinks. Adopting a socialist system is like turning your whole economy into a giant Department of Motor Vehicles.

The shopping is no good.

In Central Havana, the lack of commerce unrelated to tobacco, alcohol, or sex was striking. Habaneros lived in these neighborhoods. So where did they shop? …We found one store that was a large open room with high ceilings and cement support columns. …behind a counter, there were shelves with bottles of rum, cases of the local cola, a few canned goods, cartons of eggs, and large sacks of rice next to a scale. A line of Cubans shopped their way down the counter. The place was an odd mix, somewhere between the worst imaginable version of a grade school cafeteria and a grocery in which 95 percent of the stock is depleted.

The dining is no good.

… we decided on our last evening on the island to try a state-owned “Italian” restaurant on the main boulevard between the shitty Hotel Caribbean and the Capitol. We were disappointed to see that Italian meant nothing more than a few basic pizzas and a couple types of pasta, along with the same chicken, pork, seafood, and beef dishes we found everywhere else. We ordered two beers and “mozzarella from the oven” as an appetizer. To say that it was the equivalent of Taco Bell queso with tomato chunks in it would be insulting to Taco Bell. In fact, it was a steaming pot of greasy white goo. … most Cubans can’t afford to eat at the places we ate, and Cuba’s socialist economic system can’t even deliver variety to rich tourists. We were tired of the food after a week. But we could leave; Cubans are stuck with lousy food (outside the private restaurants), limited ingredients, and little variety for as long as they’re stuck with socialism.

And Che is no good.

Unfortunately for Cubans, Che wasn’t nearly as good at planning production as capitalists have been at plastering his image on merchandise. During Che’s stints as head of the National Bank of Cuba, minister of finance, and minister of industry, Cuba not only failed to industrialize (as promised), but its sugar production collapsed and severe rationing was introduced.

But Cubans are very good, at least when they’re out from under the tyranny of socialism.

We were in Little Havana, in Miami. The economic contrast between Little Havana and the real thing began before we even stepped out of our Uber. The half-hour car ride cost us only $13.72 instead of the absurd taxi costs in Cuba. …Unlike stores in Cuba, this store had hundreds of different items for sale. …we headed off to a Cuban restaurant for dinner. The six-page menu contained more options than we had seen from all of the restaurants in Cuba combined. …Cuban cuisine is excellent—just not when it’s served in Cuba. It’s not the Cubans’ fault. It’s the fact that socialism sucks. Cubans under a socialist system remain poor and eat bland food. Ninety miles away, Cubans who live in Miami become relatively rich and make wonderful food. Same people, two different economic systems, two drastically different economic— and gastronomic—outcomes.

By the way, I recommend the book.

There are also chapters about Sweden, Venezuela, North Korea, China, Georgia, and Russia/Ukraine.

My contribution today is this chart showing per-capita economic output in various Latin nations, derived from the Maddison database. At the time of the revolution, Cuba (orange line) was one of the richest nations. Now it has fallen far behind.

It’s always useful to look at decades of data because short-run blips aren’t a factor. Instead, you really learn a lot about which nations are enjoying good growth and which ones are stagnating.

What we’ve learned today is that the people of Cuba are poor because of awful economic policy. Other nations (most of which started in worse shape) have become much richer.

Perfect policy would be great, but even decent policy creates enough “breathing room” for more prosperity. Unfortunately, even that’s not allowed in Cuba.

P.S. For some unintentional Cuban-related humor, see here and here.

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I’ve applauded China’s economic progress.

It’s economic liberty score jumped from 3.64 in 1980 to 6.46 in the most recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World.

That shift toward markets (which started in a village) helped to dramatically reduce poverty and turn China into a middle-income nation.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that most of China’s economic liberalization (from 3.64 to 6.15) occurred between 1980 and 2003.

Since that time, China’s score has improved at a glacial pace. Moreover, because other nations have been more aggressive about reducing the burden of government, China’s relative ranking has actually dropped (from #88 to #107) since 2003.

Which is why I’ve warned that China needs another burst of pro-market reform if it wants to become a rich country.

Regarding this issue, the Wall Street Journal has a very interesting report about how China is under-performing.

The country’s state-led growth model is running out of gas. A recession or crisis may not be imminent, but the long-run implications are just as serious. Absent a change in direction, China may never become rich. …First, official statistics probably paint too flattering a picture. Per-capita income may be a quarter lower than reported, based on a study of nighttime light co-authored by Yingyao Hu of Johns Hopkins University. …Second, it doesn’t measure up to the economies China seeks to emulate. Taiwan, South Korea and Japan all opened their economies to global trade and investment, enjoyed superfast growth for several decades… In fact, China seems to be slowing sooner than the others.

Why is China underperforming?

Too much statism. Simply stated, the government has too much control over the allocation of labor and capital.

For 30 years the Communist Party opened ever more of the economy to private enterprise, trade, foreign investment and market forces. Yet it never relinquished its commitment to socialism and Mr. Brandt says that since the mid-2000s the government has tightened control over sectors… An inefficient state sector matters less if the private sector grows fast enough. But in recent years, private firms in China have faced multiple headwinds. State-controlled banks prefer to lend to state-owned enterprises… The domestic private sector’s share of total sales has dropped about 5 percentage points since 2016, according to Goldman, while the state sector’s share has risen roughly as much.

By the way, many observers (from the American Enterprise Institute, Peterson Institute for International Economics, the New York Times, the New York Post, and Investor’s Business Daily) echo the concern about China becoming more statist in recent years.

I’ll make a more restrained point.

I’ll start by sharing this very interesting chart from the WSJ story. It shows how China’s growth, while impressive, has not been as rapid as the growth enjoyed by other Asian economies.

If you look below, you’ll see I’ve now augmented the chart to explain why China has under-performed.

On the right side, I’ve added the historical rankings from Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see (and just as theory and evidence teaches us), the other nations on the chart enjoyed more growth because they had more economic freedom.

These numbers reinforce my argument that China needs more pro-market reform. Though I should add the caveat that EFW has added more nations over time, so this comparison overstates the degree to which China is lagging.

But it is lagging. The bottom line is that China needs to copy Hong Kong and Singapore if it wants to become a rich nation. Or even Taiwan, which is an under-appreciated success story.

P.S. Keep in mind that China also faces demographic decline, which makes good policy even more necessary and important.

P.P.S. Amazingly, both the OECD and IMF are trying to sabotage China’s economy.

P.P.P.S. The WSJ story is an example of good reporting. If you want an example of bad reporting about China, check out this bizarre story from the New York Times.

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I’ve repeatedly warned about the downsides of socialism, calling it “evil and stupid,” as well as a “dreary failure.”

Though these debates can be frustrating because of vague definitions.

Some people, when they talk about socialism, are referring to government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls.

Others, by contrast, are referring to Scandinavia’s market-based welfare states.

And there’s also a distinction to be made between Marxist socialism and less totalitarian versions.

Speaking of which Joseph Stiglitz opined in the Washington Post about the benefits of so-called democratic socialism.

…no one in the United States is advocating a government takeover of coal mines or oil fields — not Ocasio-Cortez, not Sanders, not anybody. …the extremes of capitalism and its dysfunction have given rise to questions such as: Can capitalism be saved from itself? …American democratic socialists — or call them what you will — is simply advocating a model that embraces government’s important role in social protection and inclusion, environmental protection, and public investment in infrastructure, technology and education. They recognize the public’s regulatory role in preventing corporations from exploiting customers or workers… Millennials respond to the label “democratic socialist” in a pragmatic way. They say, if it means ensuring a decent life for all Americans, then we’re for it. …many of these ideas have the support of a majority of Americans, especially the young.

I don’t doubt that many people respond favorably to polling questions about getting things for free.

Even the young. Maybe especially the young.

Indeed, the desire to get something for nothing is the Achilles Heel of democracy.

But does any of that mean socialism works?

Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason Law School is appropriately skeptical.

He explains why socialism imposed by a democratically elected government won’t be any more successful than the totalitarian forms of socialism.

Historically, socialism—defined as government control over all or most of the economy—has led to mass murder, poverty, and oppression on an enormous scale. …The current horrible oppression in Venezuela…is just the latest iteration of the same pattern. …current advocates of democratic socialism argue that this awful record isn’t relevant to their proposals. …we are assured that latter-day socialists don’t actually mean to impose government control over the means of production. They just want greatly increased regulation and welfare state spending. Unfortunately, the…expansion of government power advocated by modern socialists is so great that it would put most of the economy under state control, even if much industry formally remained under private ownership. It goes far beyond any Scandinavian precedent. …The standard agenda favored by most democratic socialists –  single-payer health care, universal free college, and a guaranteed federal job for anyone who wants one—would cost some $42.5 trillion over a ten year period ($4.25 trillion per year). …many enterprises would officially remain under private ownership, implementation of the democratic socialist agenda would ensure that the federal government controls the lion’s share of actual economic resources.

Professor Somin warns that the Sanders/AOC agenda would push America way to the left of the Nordic nations.

Often, their agenda is analogized to the policies of Scandinavian nations, which have large welfare states, but remain relatively prosperous and free. …The democratic socialist agenda goes well beyond the Nordic nations advocates sometimes cite as models. While these countries have comparatively large welfare states, they combine them with low levels of regulation and high openness to international trade. To take just one example, none of the Nordic nations have a national government-mandated minimum wage. The Nordic nations actually come close to the United States (and occasionally even outscore it) on standard measures of economic liberty. Iceland (slightly ahead of the US) and Denmark (slightly behind) were statistically indistinguishable from the US in the latest Index of Economic Freedom ranking put out by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Finland and Sweden were only slightly lower. When Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen tried to explain to Bernie Sanders that his country is not actually socialist, the latter should have listened.

I’ve made similar arguments about relatively high levels of economic liberty in Scandinavia, so I obviously think this is spot on.

Somin also speculates that democratic socialism in America may morph into totalitarian socialism. Which is what’s happened in Venezuela. And may happen to Greece.

I worry that he’s right, particularly since redistribution erodes societal capital.

Though I hope he’s wrong.

In any event, that’s a secondary issue. At least for now.

What matters today is that politicians are promising lots of freebies. Notwithstanding the “investment” argument made by Stiglitz and others, those new handouts will undermine prosperity.

And that’s true regardless of whether the additional spending is financed with new taxes or new debt (or printing money).

 

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By offering all sorts of freebies to various constituencies, Bernie Sanders has positioned himself as the true-believing socialist in the Democratic race (even though he’s actually a member of the “top-1 percent”).

But he has plenty of competition. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are strong competitors in the free-lunch Olympics, and most of the rest of the candidates are saying “me, too” as well.

Assuming these candidates get a warm reception, this is a worrisome development.

Part of America’s superior societal capital is (or has been) our immunity to the free-lunch message.

If that’s changing, it will be very hard to be optimistic about the future.

Antony Davies of Duquesne University and James Harrigan of the University of Arizona wrote for FEE about the dangerous – and seductive – ideology of something-for-nothing.

…politicians are tripping over each other to offer voters more “free” things, including everything from health care and college to a guaranteed basic income. But voters should be fostering a healthy sense of skepticism. If there is one eternal and immutable fact in economics, it is that nothing is free. Nothing. …as voters, our healthy skepticism seems to go right out the window. When politicians promise all sorts of “free” things, it doesn’t occur to many of us that those things can’t possibly be free. It doesn’t occur to us that, like businesses seeking our dollars, politicians will tell us whatever it takes to get hold of our votes. …Don’t be so gullible…when you hear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders tell you how health care and higher education will be free for everyone, remember that…health care and higher education cannot and will never be free.

Davies and Harrigan are economically right. Indeed, they are 100 percent right.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

But there are lunches that financed by others. And that’s why I’m worried about support for Sanders and other hard-left Democrats.

I don’t want America to turn into Europe, with people thinking they have a “right” to a wide array of goodies, paid for by someone else.

So what’s the alternative to the something-for-nothing ideology of the modern left?

Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor, recently opined on this topic in the Wall Street Journal.

Progressives are changing the Democratic Party’s focus…to subsidizing everything for everybody. …Democrats now promise free college, free health care and more—for everyone. Republicans can’t outspend Democrats, but they can make the case for freedom and against the idea that everything is “free”… The Republican ideal is…an aspirational society. …becoming dependent on government is the American nightmare. …Republicans have to do more than mock the Green New Deal…if they want to persuade young voters of the case for limited government and personal freedom. …“free” means more government control at the expense of consumer autonomy. When progressives promise government will pay for health care and college, they are really saying government will run medicine and higher education. …“Free” means less efficiency, more expense and lower quality. …“Free” means robbing from America’s children. …Despite proposed marginal rates as high as 70% or even 90%, none of the tax plans Democrats have put forward would raise nearly enough revenue to pay for the promised spending. …Republicans can’t outbid Santa Claus. Americans are willing to work hard and sacrifice for a better life but need to know how pro-growth policies benefit them. Voters may be tempted by progressives’ crazy plans… They will embrace effective market-based solutions that promote freedom if Republicans offer them.

Gov. Jindal has a great message about trumpeting growth as an alternative to redistribution.

Though I’m not brimming with confidence that Republicans are overly sincere when they use this type of rhetoric.

And some of them, like Trump, don’t even bother with pretending that they want to curtail dependency and shrink the social welfare state.

And that does not bode well for America’s future.

P.S. As is so often the case on issues of policy and ethics, Professor Walter Williams is a great source of wisdom.

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When writing about Bernie Sanders back in 2016, I put together a flowchart to identify different strains of statism.

In part, I wanted to show that genuine socialists, with their advocacy of government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls, aren’t really the same as other leftists (and I’ve made the unconventional claim that “Crazy Bernie” isn’t a true socialist – at least based on his policy positions).

I’m not the only one to notice that not all leftists have the same approach.

Writing for the Washington Post about the battle between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic nomination, Elizabeth Bruenig opines on the difference between two strains of statism.

What is the difference between Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)? …much of it comes down to the matter of regulation vs. revolution. For Warren, the solution to our economic ills already exists in well-regulated capitalism. “I believe in markets,”… Warren believes today’s socioeconomic ills are the result of high concentrations of power and wealth that can be resolved with certain regulatory tools and interventions. …for Sanders, those solutions come up short. ,,,Instead, he aims to transfer power over several key segments of life to the people — by creating a set of universal economic rights that not only entitle citizens to particular benefits (such as medical care, education and child care) but also give those citizens a say in how those sectors are governed: in short, democratic socialism.

They both sound like “stationary bandits” to me, but there are some nuances.

Elizabeth Warren basically favors private ownership but she explicitly wants politicians and bureaucrats to have the power to dictate business decisions.

Thomas Sowell points out this economic philosophy is fascism. But I’ll be more polite and refer to it as corporatism.

By contrast, as a self-declared socialist, Bernie Sanders should be in favor of nationalizing companies.

But, as reported by the New York Times, he actually sees himself as another Franklin Roosevelt.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont offered a vigorous defense of the democratic socialism that has defined his five decades in political life on Wednesday… Mr. Sanders cast himself at times in direct competition with President Trump, contrasting his own collectivist views against what he called the “corporate socialism” practiced by the president and the Republican Party. And Mr. Sanders, 77, declared that his version of socialism was a political winner, having lifted Mr. Roosevelt to victory four times… Mr. Sanders…presented his vision of democratic socialism not as a set of extreme principles but as a pathway to “economic rights,”… He argued that his ideology is embodied by longstanding popular programs, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, that Republicans have labeled socialist. …Mr. Sanders called for a “21st-century economic Bill of Rights,” which he said would address health care, wages, education, affordable housing, the environment and retirement.

I’ll make two points.

First, FDR may have won four times, but he was an awful President. His policies deepened and lengthened the Great Depression.

And his proposed “economic bill of rights” would have made a bad situation even worse. He basically said everyone has a right to lots of freebies without ever stopping to think about the impact such policies would have on incentives to lead productive lives.

For all intents and purposes, we wanted to turn this cartoon into reality.

Second, I don’t actually think there’s a significant difference between Sanders and Warren. Yes, their rhetoric is different, but they both want higher taxes, more regulation, additional spending, and more intervention.

Heck, if you examine their vote ratings from the Club for Growth or the National Taxpayers Union, it’s hard to find any real difference.

At the risk of making a radical understatement, neither of them is a friend to taxpayers.

But thinking about this issue has motivated me to modify my statism flowchart. Here’s the new version.

As you can see, I created a much-needed distinction between totalitarian statism and democratic statism.

And while Warren is on the corporatist side and Sanders is on the socialist side, I also put both of them relatively close to the Venezuela-style track of “incoherent statism.” In other words, I think they’re guided by vote buying rather than a cohesive set of principles.

P.S. I wrote last week about the emerging “anti-socialist” wing of the Democratic Party. Presumably they would be the “rational leftists” on the flowchart.

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How do we measure the cost of Venezuelan socialism?

Actually, it’s all of the above.

And there’s plenty of additional evidence. All of which shows that more socialism results in more misery.

Let’s review some examples.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. But with government running the industry, producing petroleum products has been a challenge. To put it mildly.

Venezuela — home to the world’s largest oil reserves — has started introducing in some areas to tackle extreme fuel shortages. …for ordinary Venezuelans, it is a cruel joke without a punchline — a driver recently died of a heart attack after waiting in line for days to fill his tank. …Lopez had been waiting in line to fill her tank for six hours in Lara’s capital Barquisimeto, but had to leave without getting any fuel because she had to go search for medicine for her ailing brother, who suffers from meningitis. “It’s a joke!” she fumed again as she left the gas station empty-handed, despite the fact that between state-regulated gas prices, hyper-inflation and black-market dollar exchange rates, a dollar could technically buy almost 600 million liters of fuel. …According to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Venezuela’s oil output has dropped from 3.2 million barrels per day a decade ago to 1.03 million barrels in April this year. Other estimates put that output as low as 768,000 barrels per day.

Here’s another sign of Venezuela’s descent into third-world status.

…the Center for Malaria Studies in Caracas..is not immune to Venezuela’s economic crisis and is struggling to treat patients. This is a country that lacks 85 percent of the medicines it needs, according to the pharmaceuticals industry. …Scientists who would later work for this clinic contributed in 1961 to helping Venezuela become the first country to eradicate malaria. However, there was a resurgence seven years ago, worsening to become an epidemic in 2016, according to the Red de Epidemiologia NGO. Today the clinic is in a sorry state: yellowed microscopes, a dishwasher stained by purple chemicals, refrigerators corroded by rust. …According to the World Health Organization, Venezuela registered more than 400,000 malaria cases in 2017, making it one of the hardest-hit countries in the Americas. Noya, though, believes the true extent of the epidemic is “close to two million” people affected.

I have no idea if Juan Guaido, the putative leader of the opposition, has what it takes to lead Venezuela out of the dark ages (maybe he’s another Macri rather than a Thatcher). But he’s definitely getting some first-hand experience with socialism.

On Thursday, Juan Guaido woke up and doused himself with a bucket of water. It was his shower. Like millions of Venezuelans, the man who dozens of countries recognize as the legitimate leader of his broken country can’t rely on the taps to run. …“It’s going to get worse” before things turn, he warned.

Reuters reports on how parts of Venezuela are descending into autarky and barter.

At the once-busy beach resort of Patanemo, tourism has evaporated over the last two years as Venezuela’s economic crisis has deepened and deteriorating cellphone service left visitors too afraid of robbery to brave the isolated roads. …These days, its Caribbean shoreline flanked by forested hills receives a different type of visitor: people who walk 10 minutes from a nearby town carrying rice, plantains or bananas in hopes of exchanging them for the fishermen’s latest catch. With bank notes made useless by hyperinflation, and no easy access to the debit card terminals widely used to conduct transactions in urban areas, residents of Patanemo rely mainly on barter. It is just one of a growing number of rural towns slipping into isolation as Venezuela’s economy implodes amid a long-running political crisis. …In the mountains of the central state of Lara, residents of the town of Guarico this year found a different way of paying bills – coffee beans. Residents of the coffee-growing region now exchange roasted beans for anything from haircuts to spare parts for agricultural machinery.

One can only wonder, by the way, why the collapse of trade isn’t creating more jobs and prosperity. Could it be that Trump is wrong on the issue?

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to our main topic.

What can you say about a country that’s so poor that even criminals are suffering?

Venezuela’s crippling economic spiral is having a negative impact on an unlikely group in society: criminals, who are struggling to afford bullets, and unable to find things to steal as the country’s wealth declines rapidly. …While bullets are widely available on the black market, many muggers cannot afford the $1 price tag anymore, a criminal known as “Dog” told the news organization. …Another gangster, “El Negrito,” who leads a gang called Crazy Boys, has found it increasingly hard to support his wife and daughter with assaults. Firing a bullet is a luxury now, he said. …homicide rate…went down by nearly 10% last year— though Venezuela remains one of the most violent countries in the world. The non-profit, which aggregates the data from morgues and media reports, partly attributes this decrease to the reduction in muggings — because there is nothing to steal. …Shoemaker Yordin Ruiz told The Washington Post: “If they steal your wallet, there’s nothing in it.”

What a perfect symbol of socialism! People are so poor that there’s nothing left to steal.

I want to conclude by emphasizing a point that I’ve made before about greater levels of socialism being associated with greater levels of misery.

As you can see from this chart (based on EFW data), Hong Kong has the most freedom, though it isn’t perfect.

Then you have nations such as the United States and Denmark, that have some statist characteristics but are mostly market oriented. Followed by France, which has a lot more socialist characteristics, and then Greece, which presumably can be described as a socialist nation.

But Venezuela is an entirely different category. It’s in the realm of near-absolute statism.

P.S. Cuba and North Korea presumably rank below Venezuela, but they’re not part of the EFW rankings because of inadequate and/or untrustworthy data.

P.P.S. It’s hard to believe, given the pervasive statism that now exists, but Venezuela in 1970 was ranked in the top 10 for economic liberty.

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Just last month, I wrote about Argentina’s grim economic outlook and criticized the supposed right-of-center President, Mauricio Macri, for failing to deliver any meaningful economic liberalization.

And reform is desperately needed.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, Argentina is one of the most statist nations on the planet (the only nations that do worse are Libya and Venezuela).

For all intents and purposes, Argentina is suffering from decades of bad policy.

Argentina is a sobering example of how statist policies can turn a rich nation into a poor nation. …After World War II, Argentina was one of the world’s 10-richest nations. But then Juan Peron took power and initiated Argentina’s slide toward big government, which eroded the nation’s competitiveness and hampered growth.

To put it mildly, the country is an economic tragedy and it should be a lesson for all countries about the importance of good policy.

Yet why am I writing again about Argentina after last month’s analysis?

Because a story in the New York Times discusses the nation’s upcoming presidential election and manages to paint a grotesquely inaccurate picture of what’s been happening in the country. We’re supposed to believe that Macri has been a hard-charging free-market fundamentalist.

Since taking office more than three years ago, President Mauricio Macri has broken with the budget-busting populism that has dominated Argentina for much of the past century, embracing the grim arithmetic of economic orthodoxy. Mr. Macri has slashed subsidies… “It’s a neoliberal government…It’s a government that does not favor the people.” …tribulations playing out under the disintegrating roofs of the poor are a predictable dimension of Mr. Macri’s turn away from left-wing populism. He vowed to shrink Argentina’s monumental deficits by diminishing the largess of the state. …Mr. Macri’s…presidency was supposed to offer an escape from the wreckage of profligate spending.

And we’re also supposed to believe that his failed free-market policies are paving the way for a return to left-wing populism.

As the October election approaches, Mr. Macri is contending with the growing prospect of a challenge from the president he succeeded, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner… Her return would resonate as a rebuke of his market-oriented reforms while potentially yanking Argentina back to its accustomed preserve: left-wing populism.

For what it’s worth, I suspect that Kirchner will win the next election. So that part of the article is correct.

But the part about free-market reforms is laughably inaccurate.

You don’t have to believe me. Let’s look at the Argentinian data from Economic Freedom of the World. Maybe I’m being dogmatic, but I hardly think a tiny improvement in 2015 followed by backsliding in 2016 qualifies as “diminishing the largess of the state.”

The bottom line is that Macri should have been bold and made sweeping changes once he was in charge. Like Chile after Allende’s Marxist regime was deposed.

Those reforms doubtlessly would have triggered protests. But if they became law, they would have produced tangible results.

Instead, Macri chose a timid approach and the economy has remained stagnant. Yet because many voters think he adopted reforms, they blame him and they blame free markets.

The net result is that they will probably vote for Kirchner, which presumably will mean even more statism for the long-suffering people of Argentina.

P.S. What’s happening in Argentina is not an isolated example. It’s very common for supposed right-wing politicians to choose bad policies, which then paves the way for left-wing election victories. Look at how Bush’s statist policies created the conditions for an Obama victory. Or how Sarkozy set the stage for Hollande in France. Or how Theresa May’s fecklessness in the United Kingdom may lead to a win for Jeremy Corbyn.

P.P.S. I’m tempted to also warn that Trump’s risky protectionism may lead to a victory for Crazy Bernie or some other Democrat in 2020. But Trump does have some good policies as well, so it’s hard to know whether the economy will be a net plus or net minus in the election.

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Argentina is a sobering example of how statist policies can turn a rich nation into a poor nation.

I’m not exaggerating. After World War II, Argentina was one of the world’s 10-richest nations.

But then Juan Peron took power and initiated Argentina’s slide toward big government, which eroded the nation’s competitiveness and hampered growth.

Even the Washington Post‘s Bureau Chief shares my assessment.

Perón’s rise marked the start of the country’s long, slow slide. …big-government populism squandered Argentine’s fortunes on nationalized railroads and ports. Perón’s pro-labor policies cultivated devout working-class followers but also laid the groundwork for the conversion of his party into an entity that would mirror a corrupt union. …The country battled bouts of damaging inflation in 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1974. …in the 1980s, Argentina saw a bonanza of public-sector hiring, bloated budgets… Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the Perónist ex-president, took the helm a decade ago, ushering in a new era of fudged financial data and populism.

Thanks to endless bouts of bad policy, the nation suffers from perpetual crisis.

…a country stuck in what has now become its natural state: crisis. As if living a deja vu, I flipped on the TV to once again hear Argentine newscasters fretting about bailouts, the diving peso and fears of default. Beggars — even more than before — panhandled on the same corner by an imposing church on Santa Fe Avenue. As others had done years before, stores advertised going-out-of-business sales. …Argentina is doomed to a repeating history of financial emergencies. You can almost set your watch to it, and, worryingly, the intervals between implosions are growing ever shorter.

If we focus on policy this century, there was plenty of bad policy under the previous Peronist-oriented Presidents.

And since government amassed so much power over the economy, nobody should be surprised by this BBC report about rampant corruption.

More than a dozen people have been arrested in Argentina after copies of notebooks were found detailing what seem to be illicit political payments. They were kept by Oscar Centeno, who was employed as a driver by a public works official and describe delivering bags of cash. The notebooks cover from 2003 to 2015, when Cristina Fernández and her late husband Néstor Kirchner were president. …She has previously said she is being politically persecuted by the current government, who want to distract people from the country’s economic problems. …the payments total around US$56m (£43m), but Judge Claudio Bonadio says the corruption network could reached up to US$160m.

The Economist reports that the current president, Mauricio Macri, is imposing his share of bad policies, including price controls.

The measures are a change of course for a president who sought to undo the effects of more than a decade of populist government. The most important one is a…revival of a price-control mechanism in force under the two Peronist presidents who preceded him, Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Mr Macri’s version, which he, like the Kirchners, calls “precios cuidados” (“curated prices”), the price of 64 consumer items, from milk to jam, will be frozen for six months (ie, until the eve of the election). An “army” of inspectors, under the direction of the production ministry, will enforce supermarkets’ adherence to the freeze.

Price controls are spectacularly misguided.

Politicians cause inflation by having the central bank create too much money. They then act as if the result rise in prices is the fault of “greedy businesses” and impose controls.

All of which never ends well (see Venezuela, for instance).

But Macri is also adopting other bad policies.

The government has also opened new credit lines for pensioners and families with children and expanded a plan to build new homes with state financing.

He obviously hopes his short-sighted policies will enable him to prevail in the upcoming elections.

And maybe he will if his main opponent is similarly bad.

But at least one candidate supports pro-market reforms.

Argentine economist José Luis Espert once described President Mauricio Macri’s political movement as “kirchnerism with good manners,”… Now a presidential candidate himself, Espert wants to make government a lot less polite. “We need to lay off approximately 1.5 million public employees,” Espert, the head of the newly-formed Libertarian party, told AQ in an exclusive interview. “What I propose is a complete U-turn.” …The economist claims that he is the only candidate who can actually turn around what he describes as “Argentina’s century-long failure, marked by economic populism.” …“We need to abandon our model of import substitution and of running budget deficits, and revise our labor laws, which are similar to those during Italian fascism. We need to have free trade and a state that can pay for itself through reasonable taxes,” added Espert, who on Feb. 2 released a book called The Complicit Society, in which he describes “the economic myths that led Argentina to decadency.”

Wouldn’t it be a great ending to the story if Argentina become another Chile?

My fingers certainly will be crossed (as they are currently for Brazil).

Ironically, even though the International Monetary Fund has subsidized bad policy in Argentina with periodic bailouts, some of the economists who work at the IMF actually understand what’s plaguing the country.

Here are some excerpts from their study, starting with a description of how big government is stifling prosperity.

Argentina’s economic fortune has been on a declining path for a long time. Argentina’s per capita output relative to that of advanced economies nearly halved over the past 50 years. …yearly labor productivity growth has been close to zero on average since 1980… Argentina’s regulatory and administrative burden on businesses is one of the heaviest among EMs… Argentina has the worst overall PMR index among 42 OECD and non-OECD countries, owing to high barriers to entrepreneurship (including complex regulatory procedures which impede firm entry/expansion, and barriers in network sectors), …high trade and other external barriers, and a significant involvement of the state in the economy, both through state-owned enterprises and price controls. …Stringent labor market regulations, such as high firing costs and restrictions on temporary employment, hamper efficient allocation of resources in the economy, discourage investment, and lead to labor underutilization and informality… High tax burden, especially on labor, have similar adverse effects on investment, labor utilization (particularly formal employment), and overall competitiveness of the economy.

Here’s a chart showing how Argentina is de-converging, which is remarkably depressing since conventional theory tells us that poor nations should be catching up with rich nations.

Here are the main findings from the study.

The main objective of this paper is to…assess the role of the reforms in boosting long-term GDP growth through their impact on (i) capital accumulation, (ii) labor utilization, and (iii) total factor productivity or efficiency. …The paper finds that structural reforms can have significant impact on long-term GDP growth through all three supply-side channels. …An ambitious reform effort, which were to improve business regulatory environment (closing half the gap with Australia and New Zealand over two decades), would add 1–1½ percent to average annual growth of GDP. Reducing trade tariffs and payroll taxes (closing half the gap with Australia and New Zealand) could each boost average annual real GDP growth by about 0.1 percent.

Keep in mind, by the way, that even small increments of sustained growth make a huge difference to a nation’s long-run prosperity.

Here’s a table showing the IMF’s suggested reforms.

I actually agree with almost everything on the list.

The only mistake is calling for aggressive anti-trust laws. Yet history teaches us that such laws wind up being tools to protect incumbent companies.

Moreover, the best way to fight monopolies is to have completely open entry to the marketplace.

But I don’t want to quibble. By IMF standards, that list of proposed policies is excellent.

P.S. Pope Francis inexplicably wants to export the failed Argentine model to the rest of the world. Not surprisingly, I think Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams have a better approach.

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What’s socialism?

Is it the centrally planned economies of Cuba and North Korea? Or the kleptocracies of Zimbabwe and Venezuela?

How about the interventionist welfare states of Greece, Italy, and France? Or the redistribution-oriented Nordic nations?

Since socialism means different things to different people, the answers will be all over the map.

But there’s one constant. However it’s defined, it doesn’t work.

Joshua Muravchik, writing for the Wall Street Journal, shares the many and inevitable failures of socialism.

It’s hard to think of another idea that has been tried and failed as many times in as many ways or at a steeper price in human suffering. …Marx (1818-83)…called his vision “scientific socialism.” Inspired by the dream of proletarian revolution overthrowing capitalist immiseration, socialist parties sprouted across Europe. Yet instead of growing poorer, workers in industrialized countries saw improvement in their living standards; and instead of disappearing, middle classes expanded—all disproving Marx. …Lenin pioneered modern communism, which in the 20th century was imposed on 18 countries and one-third of mankind. Repression was justified by socialism’s purported economic benefits, but the actual trade-off entailed economic misery and the snuffing out of as many as 100 million lives. …“Social democrats” and “democratic socialists” rejected Lenin’s methods. But their goals remained transformational. …British Labour Party leader Clement Attlee…sought to bring “main factors in the economic system”—including banks, mining and energy—under “public ownership and control.” Nationalization worked so badly, however, that Attlee soon beat a retreat and was voted out in 1951.

Though there was plenty of socialism until Margaret Thatcher was elected.

And if you consider the creaky National Health Service, some sectors of the economy remain socialized.

Anyhow, self-described American socialists claim they simply want to be like Scandinavian countries.

But as Muravchik notes, those nations aren’t technically socialist (i.e., they don’t have government ownershipcentral planningprice controls).

Yes, they have expensive welfare states (which have hampered growth), but markets determine how resources are allocated.

American socialists like Mr. Sanders, while often defending the likes of Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, prefer to point to Scandinavia as a model. But Scandinavian social democrats learned to settle for dense social safety nets underwritten by remarkably free, capitalist economies. On the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business scale, Denmark ranks third of 190 countries, Norway seventh and Sweden 12th.

The bottom line is that socialism has failed every place it’s been tried.

Socialism has failed everywhere it’s been tried… Surely today’s young people can create their own ideas and make their own mistakes rather than repeat those that darkened the times of their parents, grandparents and the generations before.

Now let’s look at a column by Richard Geddes of the American Enterprise Institute.

He notes that there’s a grim relationship not only between socialism and economic failure, but also that the ideology has a long list of victims.

Socialism has an abysmal record in the twentieth and twenty-first century, its effects include economic destruction, failure, and misery — Venezuela being the latest in a long line of wretched examples. Yet today, Democratic Party leaders such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez are still proud to adopt the label of “democratic socialist.” …the more rigorously socialist principles are applied, the greater the human suffering, regardless of race, creed, or geographic location. …the grim statistics of those who died in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the name of socialist experimentation (such as those who suffered forced starvation during the collectivization of agriculture) are pegged at about 100 million.

Geddes looks at the argument over how to define socialism and notes that regulation can be a back door form of socialism.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as: “A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” New socialists argue that the distinction between government ownership and regulation is critical, and that they want extensive regulation but not nationalization. Yet, if regulation is sufficiently intrusive and onerous, private property rights are neutered, and control is effectively transferred to the socialist state.

That’s also a good definition of fascism, for what it’s worth. In other words, nominal private ownership, but the heavy hand of government actually determines how resources are allocated.

Geddes notes that American socialists don’t favor dictatorship, but that doesn’t change the fact that their policies will have a very adverse impact on the economy.

New socialists argue that, unlike their 20th century counterparts, they oppose the use of force to achieve their policy goals, instead preferring peaceful democratic processes. …however, whether socialist ends are achieved through forceful or democratic processes matters little when it comes to the nefarious effects of policies such as “free” healthcare, “free” college tuition, and so on. The destructive effects on both the supply and demand side of those markets would be much the same in the end.

Like Muravchik, Geddes also explains that Nordic nations don’t qualify as socialist.

Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) — beloved by some as examples of successful socialism. …those countries are in many ways more market-oriented that the United States… Indeed, those countries are decades ahead of the United States in adopting market reforms in two of my areas of policy expertise: postal services and infrastructure delivery.

My two cents is that the Scandinavian nations are not socialist based on the technical definition.

And here’s my amateur depiction of how that works, with degree of intervention measured from top to bottom. Notice that Sweden is well above the line and isn’t socialist (indeed, it is farther from socialism than the United States.

But if everyone now thinks socialism simply means a lot of redistribution, then we get a different picture.

Under this Crazy Bernie/AOC approach, Sweden is to the right of the line and is socialist but (perversely) Venezuela doesn’t qualify.

But maybe the way to accommodate both the traditional definition and the modern usage is to draw a diagonal line.

Here’s my depiction, and I deliberately put Sweden on the socialist side to make some of my lefty friends happy (though if you’re looking at overall levels of economic freedom, they shouldn’t be socialist unless the United States also is socialist).

The obvious takeaway is that it’s best to be near the top left, near Hong Kong. And it’s also good to avoid the bottom right (Venezuela being closest to that corner, which makes sense since it is in last place according to Economic Freedom of the World).

P.S. Since I bent over backwards to define socialism in ways to make the left happy, I will atone by calling attention to my collection of socialism/communism humor.

P.P.S. The Soviet Union, as far as I understand, didn’t have any sort of welfare state other than meager pensions for the elderly. So it’s in the lower left.

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I was in Bratislava earlier today as part of the Free Market Road Show, where I spoke about how European nations are in trouble because of excessive spending and aging populations.

But I’m not going to write about my presentation because Peter Gonda of the Konservatívny Inštitút M.R. Stefánika shared some data on the post-World War II economic performance of Czechoslovakia that is far more interesting.

As you can see from his chart (the English title would be “The Economic Reality of Socialism”), Czechoslovakia, West Germany, Austria, and Finland all had very similar levels of income in 1948. But over the next 40 years, the socialist Czechoslovakian economy (CZ) fell further and further behind the market-oriented economies of those other countries.

Indeed, after just four decades, the market-oriented nations averaged twice as much per-capita economic output at the beleaguered Czechoslovakian economy.

By the way, things have improved since the collapse of communism.

Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s peacefully split into two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And both of them have since adopted a decent amount of pro-market reforms and have begun to converge with Western Europe.

So our story has a semi-happy ending (though I wrote last year that I’m worried about Slovakia backsliding a bit).

P.S. If you want other compelling examples that show – over multiple decades – the superior performance of market-oriented nations, click here and here.

P.P.S. Under Soviet rule, Czechoslovakia was genuine socialism (i.e., government ownershipcentral planningprice controls), which obviously is more damaging than what many people think of today as socialism (i.e., punitive taxes and a big welfare state).

P.P.P.S. Ludwig Erhard deserves much credit for West Germany’s post-war recovery.

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