Archive for the ‘Trade’ Category

I’m not the biggest fan of Paul Krugman in his role as a doctrinaire advocate of leftist policy (he used to be within the mainstream and occasionally point out the risks of government intervention in his former role as an academic economist).

It’s not just that he believes in big government. He also has an unfortunate habit of misinterpreting (the charitable explanation) data when advocating higher taxes and more spending.

  • In 2015, he cherry-picked job numbers to make it seem as if Obama’s policies were producing good employment data.
  • Earlier that year, Krugman asserted that America was outperforming Europe because our fiscal policy was more Keynesian, yet the data showed that the United States had bigger spending reductions and less red ink.
  • In 2014, he asserted that a supposed “California comeback” in jobs somehow proved my analysis of a tax hike was wrong, yet only four states at the time had a higher unemployment rate than California.
  • And here’s my favorite: In 2012, Krugman engaged in the policy version of time travel by blaming Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

As you can see, he’s not exactly a paragon of sound thinking and careful analysis.

But there must be a blue moon in the forecast because the New York Times columnist has an accurate criticism of Donald Trump’s tax plan.

Before sharing Krugman’s critique, here’s the position of the Trump campaign, which asserts that the World Trade Organization has rigged the rules against America by allowing nations to give rebates to exporters so that there is no value-added tax (VAT) on good and services sold to consumers in other nations.

…there is a more subtle tax problem pulling US corporations offshore. It relates to the unequal treatment of the US income tax system by the World Trade Organization (WTO). …While the US operates primarily on an income tax system, all of America’s major trading partners depend heavily on a “value-added tax” or VAT system. Under current rules, the WTO allows America’s trading partners to effectively create backdoor tariffs to block American exports and backdoor subsidies to penetrate US markets. Here’s how this exploitation works: VAT rates are typically between 15% and 25%. …Under WTO rules, any foreign company that manufactures domestically and exports goods to America (or elsewhere) receives a rebate on the VAT it has paid. This turns the VAT into an implicit export subsidy. At the same time, the VAT is imposed on all goods that are imported and consumed domestically so that a product exported by the US to a VAT country is subject to the VAT. This turns the VAT into an implicit tariff on US exporters over and above the US corporate income taxes they must pay. Thus, under the WTO system, American corporations suffer a “triple whammy”: foreign exports into the US market get VAT relief, US exports into foreign markets must pay the VAT, and US exporters get no relief on any US income taxes paid. The practical effect of the WTO’s unequal treatment of America’s income tax system is to give our major trading partners a 15% to 25% unfair tax advantage in international transactions.

In the wonky jargon of public finance, VATs are said to be “border adjustable.” And here’s Krugman’s caustic observation about the above argument.

I’ve been writing about Donald Trump’s claim that Mexico’s value-added tax is an unfair trade policy, which is just really bad economics. …a VAT has the same effects as a sales tax. Now, nobody thinks that sales taxes are an unfair trade practice. …Trump wasn’t saying ignorant things off the top of his head: he was saying ignorant things fed to him by his incompetent economic advisers. …Should we be reassured that Trump wasn’t actually winging it here, just taking really bad advice? Not at all.

I don’t know whether it’s fair to criticize Trump’s economic advisers (after all, are they the ones who developed this position, or were they simply told to justify what Trump was saying?), but I certainly agree with Krugman that other nations don’t gain a trade advantage simply because they have a VAT.

Here’s some of what I wrote about this issue earlier this year.

For mercantilists worried about trade deficits, “border adjustability” is seen as a positive feature. But not only are they wrong on trade, they do not understand how a VAT works. …Under current law, American goods sold in America do not pay a VAT, but neither do German-produced goods that are sold in America. Likewise, any American-produced goods sold in Germany are hit be a VAT, but so are German-produced goods. In other words, there is a level playing field. The only difference is that German politicians seize a greater share of people’s income. So what happens if America adopts a VAT? The German government continues to tax American-produced goods in Germany, just as it taxes German-produced goods sold in Germany. …In the United States, there is a similar story. There is now a tax on imports, including imports from Germany. But there is an identical tax on domestically-produced goods. And since the playing field remains level, protectionists will be disappointed. The only winners will be politicians since they have more money to spend.

If you want more information, I also discuss the trade impact of a VAT in this video.

So, yes, Krugman is right. At least on this particular issue.

Actually, he’s even right about another part of his column, when he pointed out that if a VAT is supposedly good for competitiveness, then this should give New York (with a high sales tax) an advantage over Delaware (with no sales tax). As Krugman points out, this is absurd.

…nobody thinks that sales taxes are an unfair trade practice. New York has fairly high sales taxes; Delaware has no such tax. Does anyone think that this gives New York an unfair advantage in interstate competition?

Indeed, the answer to Krugman’s rhetorical question is that lots of people recognize that Delaware has the advantage. This is why politicians in many states (especially those with punitive sales taxes) are pushing for the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act in hopes of forcing merchants in states like Delaware to become deputy tax collectors for states like New York (this would be an odious expansion of extraterritorial tax powers for state governments).

I don’t want to get all wonky, but this fight revolves around whether consumption taxes should be levied where goods and services are sold (the origin-based approach) or whether the taxes should be collected based on where the consumer lives (the destination-based approach). High-tax governments prefer the latter because they want to make it difficult for their residents to shop where the tax burden is lower.

By the way, politicians in Europe and elsewhere impose destination-based VATs for the same reason. They don’t like tax competition. So that’s yet another reason (above and beyond the fact that they are money machines for big government) to dislike the VAT.

I suspect, incidentally, that Krugman favors destination-based consumption taxes over origin-based systems, so even though he’s right about VATs and trade, he probably compensates by being wrong on an issue that really matters.



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I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund. The bureaucracy was created in 1944 to manage and coordinate the system of fixed exchange rates created as part of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. But once fixed exchange rates disappeared, the over-funded bureaucracy cleverly adopted a new rationale for its existence and its main role now is to bail out insolvent nations (what that really means, of course, is that it exists to bail out big banks that foolishly lend money to profligate third-world governments).

As part of this new mission, the IMF acts like the Pied Piper of tax hikes. The bureaucrats parachute into nations, refinance and restructure the debt of those countries, and insist on a bunch of tax increases in hopes that more revenue will then be available to service the new debt.

Needless to say, this is not exactly a recipe for growth and prosperity. The private sector in these countries gets hammered with tax increases, the big banks in rich nations get indirect bailouts, and the real problem of bloated government generally is left to fester and metastasize.

This is why I’ve referred to the IMF as the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy. But the bureaucracy is bad for other reasons. It also has decided that it should grade all nations on their economic policies and it routinely uses that self-assigned authority to recommend big tax hikes all over the world. Including lots of tax increases in the United States.

The IMF even tries to interfere with American elections. Just recently, the chief bureaucrat of the organization launched a not-too-subtle attack on Donald Trump.

Though in this case, which involved trade barriers, the IMF actually is on the right side (the bureaucracy generally has a pro-tax bias, but the one big exception is that it favors lower taxes on global trade).

Anyhow, the IMF’s Managing Director warned that additional protectionist taxes on global trade threaten the global economy. And even though she didn’t specifically mention the Republican nominee, you can see from the various headlines I’m sharing that reporters put 2 + 2 together and realized that Ms Lagarde was criticizing Trump.

And he deserves condemnation. The post-World War II shift to lower trade taxes has been a big victory for economic freedom (indeed, tariff reductions have helped offset the damage caused by increasingly bad fiscal policy over the past several decades).

Nonetheless, there is something quite unseemly about an international bureaucracy taking sides in an American election (who do they think they are, the IRS?). Especially since American taxpayers underwrite the biggest share of the IMF’s activities.

Let’s look specifically at an analysis of the IMF’s actions from the UK-based Guardian.

The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has launched a thinly veiled attack on the anti-free-trade sentiments expressed by US presidential candidate Donald Trump… Lagarde made it clear she strongly opposed the Republican candidate’s policies, which include higher US tariffs and a barrier along the border with Mexico. …“There is a growing risk of politicians seeking office by promising to ‘get tough’ with foreign trade partners through punitive tariffs or other restrictions on trade…” She added that throughout history there had been arguments about trade. “But history clearly tells us that closing borders or increasing protectionism is not the way to go…”

By the way, while I agree with her comments on trade, her comments about a “barrier along the border with Mexico” reek of hypocrisy.

Christine Lagarde criticises his policies including plans for…a US-Mexico border wall.

Those who have visited the IMF’s lavish headquarters can confirm that there is a very heavily guarded barrier separating the IMF from the hoi polloi and peasantry of Washington.

Call me crazy, but a bureaucracy with lots of security to prevent unauthorized people from entering its building is in no position to lecture a nation for wanting security to prevent unauthorized people from crossing its borders. And I say this as someone who generally favors immigration.

But let’s set that issue aside. There’s actually a very serious sin of omission in the IMF’s analysis that needs to be addressed.

The international bureaucracy (correctly) opposes trade taxes and wants to build on the progress of recent decades by further reducing government-imposed barriers to cross-border economic activity. As noted above, this is the right position and I applaud the IMF’s defense of lower tariffs and expanded trade.

That being said, the level of protectionism has fallen significantly in the post-World War II era. In other words, trade taxes already are reasonably low. Yes, it would be better if they were even lower (ideally zero, like in Hong Kong).

My problem (or, to be more accurate, one of my problems) with the IMF is that the bureaucracy acts as if the world economy is hanging in the balance if there’s some sort of increase in the currently low tax burden on trade.

Yet what about the tax burden on behaviors that actually generate the income people use to purchase goods from other nations? Top tax rates on personal income average more than 40 percent in the developed world, dwarfing the average tariffs of trade.

And the burden on income that is saved and invested is even higher because of double taxation, which is especially destructive since all economic theories – including Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a key to long-run growth and higher living standards (i.e., the ability to buy more goods, including those produced in other nations).

So here’s the question that must be asked: If it is bad to have very modest taxes on the share of people’s income that is used to buy goods produced in other nations, then why isn’t it even worse to have very onerous taxes on the productive behaviors that generate that income?

In other words, if the IMF is correct (and it is) to criticize Trump for threatening to increase the modest tax rates that are imposed on global trade, then why doesn’t the IMF criticize Hillary Clinton for threatening to increase the rather harsh tax rates that are imposed on working, saving, and investment?

Maybe Madame Lagarde’s army of flunkies and servants (one of the many perks she gets, in addition to a munificent tax-free salary) can explain that sauce for a goose is also sauce for a gander.

By the way, I can’t resist addressing one final aspect to this story. The Guardian‘s report notes that Lagarde wants to offset the supposedly harmful impact of trade by further increasing the size and scope of government.

…the solution was for governments to provide direct financial support for those with low skills through higher minimum wages, more generous welfare states, investment in education and a crackdown on tax evasion.

Wow, that’s a lot of economic illiteracy packed into one sentence fragment.

Now you understand why I refer to the IMF as the dumpster fire of global economics.

P.S. While the IMF likes to push bad policy for the United States, the bureaucracy’s proposals for China are akin to a declaration of economic warfare.

P.P.S. The IMF’s flip-flop on infrastructure spending reveals a lot about the bureaucracy’s inner workings.

P.P.P.S. While the IMF often produces sloppy and dishonest research, every so often the professional economists on the staff slip something  useful past the political types. Though my all-time-favorite bit of IMF research was the study that inadvertently showed why a value-added tax is so dangerous.

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On June 23, the people of the United Kingdom will have the opportunity to restore sovereignty and protect democracy by voting in a national referendum to leave the European Union.

They should choose “leave” over “remain.”

The European Union’s governmental manifestations (most notably, an über-powerful bureaucracy called the European Commission, a largely powerless but nonetheless expensive European Parliament, and a sovereignty-eroding European Court of Justice) are – on net – a force for statism rather than liberalization.

Combined with Europe’s grim demographic outlook, a decision to remain would guarantee a slow, gradual decline.

A vote to leave, by contrast, would create uncertainty and anxiety in some quarters, but the United Kingdom would then have the ability to make decisions that will produce a more prosperous future.

Leaving the EU would be like refinancing a mortgage when interest rates decline. In the first year or two, it might be more expensive because of one-time expenses. In the long run, though, it’s a wise decision.

From an American perspective, George Will has been especially insightful and eloquent. Here are some excerpts from a recent column in the Washington Post.

Lord Nigel Lawson… is impatient with the proposition that it is progress to transfer to supra-national institutions decisionmaking that belongs in Britain’s Parliament. …The Remain camp correctly says that Britain is richer and more rationally governed than when European unification began. The Leave camp, however, correctly responds that this is largely in spite of the E.U. — it is because of decisions made by British governments, particularly Margaret Thatcher’s, in what is becoming a shrinking sphere of national autonomy. In 1988, Thatcher said: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Here’s a good visual of what’s happening. What began as a good idea (free trade) has become a bad idea (economic union) and may become an even worse idea (common government).

Here’s what Dan Hannan, a British Member of the European Parliament, wrote on the issue. He’s very pro-Europe, but understands that does not mean European-wide governance is a good idea.

I’m emotionally drawn to Europe. I speak French and Spanish and have lived and worked all over the Continent. I’ve made many friends among…committed Euro-federalists. …they are also decent neighbours, loyal companions and generous hosts. I feel twinges of unease about disappointing them, especially the anglophiles. But, in the end, the head must rule the heart.

Dan identifies six reasons why it is sensible to leave.

Here are relevant portions of his arguments, starting with the fact that the EU is becoming a super-state..

The EU has acquired, one by one, the attributes and trappings of nationhood: a president and a foreign minister, citizenship and a passport, treaty-making powers, a criminal justice system, a written constitution, a flag and a national anthem. It is these things that Leavers object to, not the commerce and co-operation that we would continue to enjoy, as every neighbouring country does.

Second, it is only pro-trade for members, not the wider world.

The EU is not a free-trade area; it is a customs union. The difference may seem technical, but it goes to the heart of the decision we face. Free-trade areas remove barriers between members and, economists agree, tend to make participants wealthier. Customs unions, by contrast, erect a common tariff wall around their members, who surrender the right to strike individual trade deals. …Britain is one of only two of 28 member states that sell more to the rest of the world than to the EU. We have always been especially badly penalised by the EU’s Common External Tariff. Unlike Switzerland, which enjoys free trade with the EU at the same time as striking agreements with China and other growing economies… It’s a costly failure. In 2006, the EU was taking 55 per cent of our exports; last year, it was down to 45 per cent. What will it be in 2030 — or 2050?

Third, the advocates of common government are candid about their ultimate goals.

The Five Presidents’ Report sets out a plan for the amalgamation of fiscal and economic policies… The Belgian commissioner Marianne Thyssen has a plan for what she calls ‘social union’ — i.e. harmonisation of welfare systems. …These are not the musings of outlandish federalist think tanks: they are formal policy statements by the people who run Brussels.

Fourth, Europe is stagnant.

…in 1973, the states that now make up the EU accounted for 36 per cent of the world economy. Last year, it was 17 per cent. Obviously, developing economies grow faster than advanced ones, but the EU has also been comprehensively outperformed by the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. …Why tie ourselves to the world’s slowest-growing continent?

Fifth, there are examples of very successful non-EU nations in Europe.

…we can get a better deal than…Switzerland…and Norway…; on the day we left, we’d become the EU’s single biggest export market. …They trade freely with the EU…they are self-governing democracies.

And last but not least, a decision to remain will be interpreted as a green light for more centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization.

A Remain vote will be…capitulation. Look at it from the point of view of a Euro-federalist. Britain would have demanded trivial reforms, failed to secure even those, and then voted to stay in on unchanged terms. After decades of growling and snarling, the bulldog would have rolled over and whimpered. …With the possibility of Brexit off the table, there will be a renewed push to integration, on everything from migrant quotas to a higher EU budget.

Dan’s bottom line is very simple.

We have created more jobs in the past five years than the other 27 states put together. How much bigger do we have to be, for heaven’s sake, before we can prosper under our own laws?

Roland Smith, writing for the U.K.’s Adam Smith Institute, produced The Liberal Case for Leave. Needless to say, he’s looking at the issue from the classical liberal perspective, not the statist American version.

Anyhow, here’s some of what he wrote.

…the 1970s turned out to be an odd period where many things that seemed like good ideas at the time turned out not to be. …While there may have been an element of truth about EEC membership in the 1970s that seduced many subsequent sceptics…our timing for joining “the club” could not have been worse. …globalisation was beginning to eat into the logic of a political European Union at the very point it was striding towards statehood with a single euro currency. …the European single market is being rapidly eclipsed. …The EU is therefore increasingly becoming a pointless middleman as a vast new global single market takes over.

Here’s a chart from the article showing the European Union’s rapidly falling share of global economic output.

Mr. Smith does not think it’s smart to link his country’s future to a declining bloc of nations.

We are now less dependent than ever on our closest trading partners in Europe and this trend is marching relentlessly onward. For the first 40 years of our membership, the majority — over 60% — of UK exports went to the EU. But in 2012, for the first time, that figure dropped below 50%. It is now at 45% and continues to sink. …The demographics of the European continent, alongside the dysfunctional euro and its insidious effects across Europe have also played a large part in this change… This situation and these trends are not going to change.

Here’s his conclusion.

This Brexit vision is therefore a global, outward-looking and ambitiously positive one. It eschews the inward-looking outlook of…the Remain lobby… So a parochial inward-looking “little Europe” and a demographically declining one, ranged against an expansive, liberal and global outlook. …The crux of the matter is that we in Britain want trade and cooperation; our EU partners want merger and a leashed hinterland.

These are strong arguments, so why does Prime Minister David Cameron want to remain?

And why is he joined by the hard-left leader of the Labour Party (actually, that’s easy to answer given the shared leftist orientation of both Jeremy Corbyn and EU officials), along with most big companies and major unions?

Most of them, if asked, will argue that a vote to leave the EU will undermine the economy. They’ll cite estimates of lower economic output from the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the British Treasury, and other sources.

To be blunt, these numbers lack credibility. A pro-centralization, pro-EU Prime Minister asked for numbers from a bureaucracy he controls. As critics have pointed out, the goal was to produce scary numbers rather than to produce real analysis.

And the numbers from the international bureaucracies are even more laughable. The IMF is a left-wing organization with a dismal track record of sloppy and disingenuous output. And the OECD also is infamous for a statist perspective and dishonest data manipulation.

Indeed, the palpable mendacity of these numbers has probably boomeranged on supporters of the EU. Polls show that voters don’t believe these hysterical and overwrought numbers.

Instead, they laugh about “Project Fear.”

Yet, as reported by John Fund of National Review, the EU crowd is doubling down in their panic to frighten people.

…the organizers of Project Fear have gone into overdrive. European Council President Donald Tusk said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild that radical anti-European forces will be “drinking champagne” if Brexit passes.  …Tusk said. “As a historian I fear that Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also of western political civilization in its entirety.”

End of western civilization? Seriously?

Gee, why not also predict a zombie apocalypse?

These chicken little predictions are hard to take seriously when Britons can look at other nations in Europe that are prospering outside the European Union.

Consider Norway. Advocates of the EU claimed horrible results if the country didn’t join. Needless to say, those horrible results never materialized.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t honest people who sincerely think it would be a mistake to leave the European Union.

Indeed, a survey by the Centre for Macroeconomics found very negative views.

Almost all panel members thought that a vote for Brexit would lead to a significant disruption to financial markets and asset prices for several months, which would put the Bank of England on high alert. On top of the risk of a financial crisis in the near future, an unusually strong majority agree that there would be substantial negative long-term consequences.

Other economists seem to agree.

Four of them produced an article for VoxEU, and here’s some of what they wrote.

The possibility of the UK leaving the EU has generated an unusual degree of consensus among economists. …analysis from the Bank of England, to the OECD, to academia has all shown that Brexit would make us economically worse off. The disagreement is mainly over the degree of impoverishment… The one exception is…Professor Patrick Minford of Cardiff University, who argues that Brexit will raise the UK’s welfare by 4% as a result of increased trade… Minford’s policy recommendation is that following a vote for Brexit, the UK should not bother striking new trade deals but instead unilaterally abolish all its import tariffs… we know of no cases where an industrialised country has ever implemented full unilateral liberalisation – and for good reason. Persuading other countries to reduce their trade barriers is easier if you can also say you’re going to reduce your own as part of the deal. If we’re committed to going naked into the world economy, other countries are unlikely to follow suit voluntarily. …In reality, the UK will still continue to trade extensively with our closest geographical neighbours, it’s just that the higher trade barriers mean that we will do less of it.

Other establishment voices are convinced that the United Kingdom would be crazy to leave the EU.

Robert Samuelson, in his Washington Post column, views it as a form of national suicide because of existing economic ties to continental Europe.

Countries usually don’t knowingly commit economic suicide, but in Britain, millions seem ready to give it a try. …Leaving the E.U. would be an act of national insanity. It would weaken the U.K. economy, one of Europe’s strongest. The E.U. absorbs 44 percent of Britain’s exports; these might suffer because trade barriers, now virtually nonexistent between the U.K. and other E.U. members, would probably rise. Meanwhile, Britain would become less attractive as a production platform for the rest of Europe, so that new foreign direct investment in the U.K. — now $1.5 trillion — would fall. Also threatened would be London’s status as Europe’s major financial center, home (for example) to 78 percent of E.U. foreign exchange trading. With the U.K. out of the E.U., some banking activities might move to Frankfurt or other cities. …Brexit is an absurdity. But it is a potentially destructive absurdity. It creates more uncertainty in a world awash in uncertainty.

Allister Heath of the Daily Telegraph disagrees with these proponents of the status quo.

David Cameron and George Osborne have been claiming, over and again, that those of us who support Brexit have lost the economic argument. …utter nonsense. …The free-market, cosmopolitan, pro-globalisation economic case for leaving is stronger than ever… The hysterical studies claiming that Brexit would ruin us are grotesque caricatures, attempts at portraying a post-Brexit Britain as a nation that suddenly decided to turn its back on free trade and foreigners. …a Brexit would almost certainly mean the UK remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA), like Norway: we would be liberated from much political interference, be allowed to forge our own free-trade deals while retaining the single market’s Four Freedoms. Europe’s shell-shocked corporate interests would demand economic and trade stability of its equally traumatised political classes, and they would get it. …with supply-side reforms at home, the UK would become more, rather than less, attractive to global capital. The Treasury, OECD and IMF’s concocted Armageddon scenarios wouldn’t materialise. Remain has only won the economic argument in the sense that most economists and the large institutions that employ them support their side.

And Allister points out that the supposed consensus view of economists has been wildly wrong in the past.

Time and time again, the majority of economists make spectacularly wrong calls, and it is a small, despised minority that gets it right. In 1999, The Economist wrote to the UK’s leading academic practitioners of the dismal science to find out whether it would be in our national economic interest to join the euro by 2004. Of the 165 who replied, 65 per cent said that it would. Even more depressingly, 73 per cent of those who actually specialised in the economics of the EU and of monetary union thought we should join – the experts among the experts were the most wrong. Britain would have gone bust had we listened… The vast majority of economists did not foresee or predict the financial crisis or the Great Recession or the eurozone crisis. Yet they now have the chutzpah to behave as if they should be treated like philosopher kings… Remember the Twenties? The economics profession overwhelmingly failed to see the great bubble and subsequent crash and depression. The Thirties? It messed up on just about everything. …In the Sixties and subsequently, Paul Samuelson’s best-selling, dominant economics textbook was predicting that the Soviet Union’s GDP per capita would soon catch up with America’s. The Seventies? Most economists didn’t know how stagflation could even be possible. The Eighties? The profession opposed Thatcherism and the policies that saved the UK; infamously, 364 economists attacked Thatcher’s macroeconomic policies in the 1981 Budget and then kept getting it wrong. …The problem this time around is that Remain economists assume that leaving the EU would mean reducing globalisation and halting most immigration. They assume that there are only costs and no benefits from leaving the EU…the EU’s anti-democratic institutions are unsustainable and thus pose a great threat to the liberal international economic order its UK supporters claim to be defending.

The debate among economists is mostly focused on trade.

With that in mind, this television exchange is very enlightening.

In other words, nations all over the world trade very successfully without being in the European Union, so this view that somehow the United Kingdom can’t do likewise is a triumph of theory over reality.

It’s way past time to wrap this up, but there are a few additional items I can’t resist sharing.

A British parliamentarian (akin to a member of Congress in the U.S.) is understandably unhappy that some Americans, most notably President Obama, are interfering in the Brexit election.

Here are parts of Chris Grayling’s column in the Washington Post.

Imagine if you were told that the United States should join an American Union bringing together all the nations of North and South America. It would have its own parliament — maybe in Panama City, a place on the cusp of the two halves of the Americas. That American Parliament would have the power to make the majority of your laws. A Supreme Court of the Americas in Panama would outrank the U.S. Supreme Court and take decisions that would be mandatory in the United States. …That is, more or less, where Britain finds itself today.

Sensible Americans obviously wouldn’t like that state of affairs.

And we would be even more unhappy if that Superstate of the Americas kept grabbing more power, which is exactly what’s happening across the Atlantic.

It decrees that any citizen of any European country can come and live and work in Britain — and that if they do, we must give them free health care and welfare support if they need it. Millions have done so. …it is moving closer and closer to becoming a single government for Europe, and indeed many of its key players — leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande — have that as a clear goal. Britain has a small minority of the voting rights, and loses out almost every time.

Allister Heath adds more wisdom to the discussion.

He’s especially mystified by those who think the EU is a force for liberalization.

Bizarrely, given the EU’s appalling record, these folk see Brussels as the last guardian of enlightenment values; the only way to save the project, they believe, is rule by a transnational nomenklatura. …Remainians are petrified that the British public would…vote the wrong way: for protectionism, nationalisation, xenophobia and stupidity. We would…support idiotic, growth-destroying and socially unacceptable policies. Astonishingly, given the Continent’s collectivist history, such folk equate membership of the EU with free trade and Britain’s Leave camp with protectionism. It’s a breathtaking error of judgement… They cannot grasp that there are other, better ways of opening markets than from within the EU, and that in any case it is just about as far from a libertarian project as it is possible to imagine. …pro-EU Left and Right agree that the people are dangerous, that they must be contained and that, slowly but surely, entire areas of public policy should be hived off beyond the reach of the British electorate. The strategy is to impose top-down restraints and to subcontract decision-making to external bodies… European institutions are actually the antithesis of true liberalism.

Let’s end with some passages from another George Will column.

Michael Gove, secretary of justice and leader of the campaign for Brexit — Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U. — anticipates a “galvanizing, liberating, empowering moment of patriotic renewal.” …American conservatives would regard Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U. as the healthy rejection of political grandiosity. …If Britons vote to remain in the E.U., this might be the last important decision made at British ballot boxes because important decisions will increasingly be made in Brussels. The E.U.’s “democracy deficit” is…the point of such a state. …Under Europe’s administrative state, Gove says “interest groups are stronger than ever” and they prefer social stasis to the uncertainties of societies that welcome the creative destruction of those interests that thrive by rent-seeking. …most of binding law in Britain — estimates vary from 55 percent to 65 percent — arises not from the Parliament in Westminster but from the European Commission in Brussels. The E.U. has a flag no one salutes, an anthem no one sings, a president no one can name, a parliament that no one other than its members wants to have more power (which must be subtracted from national legislatures), a capital of coagulated bureaucracies that no one admires or controls, a currency that presupposes what neither does nor should exist (a European central government administering fiscal policy), and rules of fiscal behavior (limits on debt-to-gross domestic product ratios) that few if any members obey and none have been penalized for ignoring. …the 23rd of June can become Britain’s Fourth of July — a Declaration of Independence. If Britain rejects continuing complicity in the E.U. project — constructing a bland leviathan from surrendered national sovereignties — it will have…taken an off-ramp from the road to serfdom.

Well said.

If I lived in the United Kingdom, I would vote to leave the European Union.

Simply stated, the European project is controlled by statists and the one good thing it provides (free trade between members) is easily overwhelmed by the negative things it imposes (protectionism against outsiders, tax harmonization, horrible agriculture subsidies, bad fisheries policy, etc).

Moreover, the continent is demographically dying.

The bottom line is that the European Union is a sinking ship. This cartoon is a bit flamboyant, but it captures my overall sentiments.

If I had lots of money and was confident of the outcome, I would learn the words to this song and fly to London so I could sing in celebration on June 23rd.

Alas, just as I predicted the Scots wouldn’t vote for independence, I fear the scare campaign ultimately will succeed and Britons will vote to remain on the sinking ship of the European Union.

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John Cowperthwaite deserves a lot of credit for Hong Kong’s prosperity. As a British appointee, he took a hands-off policy and allowed the colony’s economy to thrive. He didn’t even want the government to collect statistics since that would give interventionists data that might be used to argue for interventionism.

I have mixed feelings about that approach. I constantly use statistics because they so often show that free markets and small government produce the best outcomes. I even use data to show that Hong Kong’s economy should be emulated.

On the other hand, there are some statistics that cause a lot of mischief.

I’ve argued, for instance, that we should focus on how national prosperity is generated (gross domestic income) rather than how it is allocated (gross domestic product). If we changed the focus to GDI, the debate would more naturally focus on pro-growth policies to boost wages, small business income, and corporate profits rather than the misguided policies (such as Keynesian economics) that are enabled by a focus on GDP.

That being said, there’s a good argument that the worst government statistic is the “trade deficit.”

This is a very destructive piece of data because people instinctively assume a “deficit” is bad. Yet I have a trade deficit every year with my local grocery store. I’m always buying things from them and they never buy anything from me. Does that mean I’m a “loser”? Of course not. Voluntary exchange, by definition, means that both parties gain from any transaction. And this principle applies when voluntary exchange occurs across national borders.

Moreover, people oftentimes don’t realize that the necessary and automatic flip side of a “trade deficit” is a “capital surplus.” In other words, when foreign companies acquire dollars by selling to American consumers, they frequently decide that investing in the American economy is the best use of that money. And the huge amount of investment from overseas is a sign of comparative prosperity and vitality, not a sign of weakness.

And for any readers who nonetheless think protectionism might be a good idea, I challenge them to answer these eight questions.

I’m confident that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be able to successfully answer any of them. Yet it appears they’ve gained some traction with voters by calling for protectionism.

That’s quite unfortunate. If the pro-trade policy consensus in America breaks down, that would create dangerous opportunities for politicians and bureaucrats to rig the game in favor of special interests while also imposing higher costs of taxpayers and consumers.

Let’s dig into the issue.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Mort Kondracke and Matthew Slaughter combine to produce a strong defense of trade.

…the four leading presidential candidates…oppose the U.S. ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All four demonize trade the same way. …Where is the leader with the courage to tell the truth? To say that trade made this nation great, and that trade barriers will destroy far more jobs than they can ever “save.” …America’s exporters and importers are among the country’s most dynamic companies, paying their workers about 15%-20% more than workers earn elsewhere in the economy. The overall gains are large. Trade and related activities—spurred by accords such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, have boosted annual U.S. income today by about 10 percentage points of GDP relative to what it would have been otherwise. This translates into an aggregate gain of about $1.8 trillion in 2015—thousands of dollars per U.S. household every year. …creative destruction—the movement of people and capital from weaker businesses to stronger ones and new opportunities—is how many of the gains from trade arise. …For generations, American presidents of both parties have spoken about the benefits of trade. “Economic isolation and political leadership are wholly incompatible,” warned John Kennedy. “A creative, competitive America is the answer to a changing world,” said Ronald Reagan. “We should always remember: protectionism is destructionism.”

By the way, I think Kondracke and Slaughter paint with too broad a brush. Both Cruz and Clinton are far less protectionist than Trump and Sanders. Though the authors are correct in noting that they’ve been reluctant (especially in the case of Clinton) to vigorously defend free trade.

The great legal scholar Richard Epstein (also my former debating partner) writes about the dangers of protectionism.

There are of course major difference between the insidious Trump and buffoonish Sanders. …Still, the real selling point of each boils down to one issue: In the indecorous language of the pollster, Pat Caddell, Americans feel “they have been screwed” by free trade. …free trade is in retreat as protectionism becomes the common thread across the both political parties. It is as though the economic unwisdom of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act is back.

Richard makes a very important point that politicians often support protectionism in an attempt to hide the damage they do with other misguided policies.

Free trade offers an uncompromising indictment of, and a powerful corrective for, America’s unsound economic policies. …the reason that local businesses outsource from the United States is the same reason why foreign businesses are reluctant to expand operations here. Our regulatory and labor environment is hostile to economic growth and there are no signs of that abating anytime soon. …the steady decline in freedom and productivity inside the United States has continued apace. Ironically, the strong likelihood that the next American president will expand protectionist practices will only make matters worse: firms, both foreign and domestic, are more reluctant to invest in the United States…free trade gives the federal government and the individual states strong incentives to clean up their act so that they can once again be attractive to foreign investment.

My buddy Ross Kaminsky explains in the American Spectator that free trade is good because it is part of the competitive process that boosts living standards, particularly for the poor.

…in trade, as in any economic endeavor, there are losers in the short run. Capitalism is, after all, fundamentally a system of creative destruction. But if there is any area of agreement among economists of all political stripes…it is that free trade provides large net benefits to the societies that engage in it, even if other nations do not lower trade barriers to the same degree. Furthermore, the benefits of trade accrue in large measure to the lower economic echelons of society in an extension of Schumpeter’s profound observation that “the capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.”

And Ross echoes Richard Epstein’s point about the real problem being anti-growth policies that make America less competitive.

Trade is complex and like all complex things politicians will dumb it down in a way that benefits them, generally by lying to the public and creating a frothy anger against those “damn furiners” instead of pointing fingers at the true culprits: unions, regulators, and politicians of all stripes.

Ross and Richard are right. If politicians really want more jobs in America, they should be adopting policies to boost U.S. competitiveness.

And we don’t need giant steps. Yes, a flat tax would be great, but even incremental reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate or the right tax treatment of business investment would yield big dividends.

Let’s add a few more voices to the discussion.

In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal debunks Donald Trump’s protectionist tirade against China.

The real-estate developer recently added Japan to his most-wanted list of job killers… “They’re killing us. You know what we sell to Japan? Practically nothing.” Is $116 billion worth of annual goods and services exports to Japan practically nothing? Japan is the fourth largest U.S. export market in goods after Canada, Mexico and China. …The best way to boost American exports is to remove trade barriers with new trade agreements. U.S. farm producers would particularly benefit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Japan and 10 other countries. Japanese tariffs on beef would fall to 9% in the 16th year of the deal from 38.5% while the 20% tariff on ground pork would be eliminated in six years. Japan’s 21.3% levy on poultry and eggs would be abolished in six to 13 years.

Writing for the Washington Post, David Ignatius defends trade in general and trade agreements in particular.

…the revolt against free trade that has captured both parties could do the most long-term damage. …there’s strong evidence that trade has benefited the U.S. economy and created whole new industries in which the United States is dominant. That’s the essence of the “creative destruction” that makes a market economy so potent: It relentlessly pushes innovation and change. …The bipartisan protectionism of Trump and Sanders has focused its attacks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership… Robert Z. Lawrence and Tyler Moran estimate that between 2017 and 2026, when TPP would have its major impact, the costs to displaced workers would be 6 percent of the benefits to the economy — or an 18-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio. …David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson…noted that the pact would promote trade in knowledge industries where the United States has a big advantage and that “killing the TPP would do little to bring factory work back to America.”

Ignatius also makes a very important observation that protectionists want us to be scared of nations that have much bigger problems than the United States.

Trump, the businessman, seems weirdly out of touch with real economic trends. He speaks of Japan as though it were an economic powerhouse, when it has actually suffered a two-decades-long slump; he describes a surging China, when the numbers show its growth is sagging.

Amen. Japan has huge problems and China still has quite a way to go before it becomes a developed nation.

Let’s close with some good news. Politicians may be engaging in anti-trade demagoguery, and there may be some voters that are motivated by hostility to voluntary exchange, but that doesn’t mean the protectionists have won.

Indeed, pro-trade sentiment has never been higher by some measures. Here’s some amazingly positive polling data from Gallup.

P.S. One final point. The growing burden of government spending and taxation since World War II have been very unfortunate, but the good news is that we have strong evidence that the economic damage of worsening fiscal policy has been offset by the economic gains from trade liberalization. It would be tragic to see that reversed.

P.P.S. Fans of Richard Epstein may enjoy this video of him reminiscing about Barack Obama’s undistinguished tenure at the University of Chicago Law School, as well as this video of him dismantling George Soros in a debate that took place at Cato.

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This century has not been good news for economic liberty in the United States.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, America has dropped from being the 3rd-freest economy of the world in 2001 to the 12th-freest economy in the most recent rankings.

Perhaps more important, our aggregate score has fallen from 8.20 to 7.81 over the same period.

So why has the U.S. score dropped? Was it Bush’s spending binge? Obama’s stimulus boondoggle? All the spending and taxes in Obamacare? The fiscal cliff tax hike?

I certainly think all those policies were mistaken, but if you dig into the annual data, America’s score on “size of government” only fell from 7.1 to 7.0 between 2001 and 2012.

Which means economic freedom in the United States mostly declined for reasons other than fiscal policy. In other words, our score dropped because of what happened to our scores for trade policy, monetary policy, regulatory policy, and property rights and rule of law.

That triggered my curiosity. If America is #12 in the overall rankings, how would we rank if fiscal policy was removed from the equation?

Here are the results, showing the top 25 jurisdictions based on the four non-fiscal policy factors. As you can see, the United States drops from #12 to #24, which means we trail 14 European nations in these important measures of economic freedom.

If you look in the second column, you’ll notice how many of those European nations have double-digit increases when you look at their non-fiscal rankings compared to their overall rankings.

This is for two reasons.

First, their fiscal scores are terrible because of high tax rates and a stifling burden of government spending.

Second, these same nations are hyper-free market on issues such as trade, regulation, money, rule of law and property rights.

In other words, the data back up points I’ve made about policy in nations such as Denmark and Sweden.

In an ideal world, countries should have free markets and small government. In Northern Europe, they manage to get the first part right. Which is important since non-fiscal factors account for 80 percent of a nation’s overall grade.

Now let’s return to the issue of America’s decline.

Here are the non-fiscal rankings from 2001. As you can see, the United States was #5 at the time, scoring higher than even Singapore and Hong Kong. And the U.S. was behind only three European nations back in 2001.

For what it’s worth, America’s score has fallen primarily because of a significant drop in the trade category (from 8.7 to 7.7) and a huge drop for rule of law and property rights (from 8.7 to 7.0).

In other words, it’s not good for prosperity when a nation begins to have problems such as protectionism and politicized courts.

P.S. The erosion of America’s score for non-fiscal factors is particularly disappointing since improvements in those factors have played a big role in protecting the world from the negative economic consequences of more spending and taxes.

P.P.S. I think this is an example of correlation rather than causation, but the above rankings for non-fiscal economic liberty seem somewhat similar to the rankings I shared last week looking at overall societal freedom.

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Free trade is a good moral concept for the simple reason that politicians and bureaucrats should not be allowed to interfere with voluntary transactions between consenting adults.

It’s also a good economic concept for the simple reason that protectionists can’t provide good answers to simple questions.

And free trade is a good geopolitical concept because it is far better than foreign aid as a mechanism for generating prosperity in less-developed nations.

Writing for the Economic Times of India, Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center writes about the benefits of open markets among nations.

With one simple policy—more free trade—we could make the world $500 trillion better off and lift 160 million people out of extreme poverty. …reducing trade barriers not only makes the world richer, it is a great enabler for reducing poverty, curtailing hunger, improving health and restoring the environment. …Freer trade essentially means that each country can focus on doing what it does best, making all countries better off.

The good news is that global trade has been substantially liberalized. Protectionist barriers are much lower than they were a few decades ago.

Indeed, shifts to freer trade have helped compensate for growing fiscal burdens in the post-WWII era.

But we also have bad news. There are still sectors where trade taxes and other protectionist policies inhibit voluntary exchange, most notably for agriculture and textiles.

Lomborg cites data about the huge gains that would be possible if these sectors were liberalized.

The direct economic benefits would be a 1.1 per cent increase in global GDP. This sounds modest. But because it would impact the entire world economy, by 2030 we would be about $1.5 trillion richer every year. Open economies also grow faster. In the last 50 years, countries as diverse as South Korea, Chile and India have seen their rate of growth shoot up by 1.5 per cent per annum on average, shortly after liberalisation. If Doha can be completed, it is estimated that the global economy will grow by an extra 0.6 per cent for the next few decades. By 2030, such dynamic growth would make the world economy $11.5 trillion larger each year, leaving us 10 per cent more resources to fix all other problems. …By the end of the century, free trade could leave our grandkids 20 per cent better off, or with $100 trillion more every year than they would otherwise have had.

Lomborg is making the very important point that even modest increases in growth, sustained over long periods of time, can lead to huge increases in prosperity.

He correctly applies this analysis to the trade sector, but it’s a lesson that has universal applicability. It’s why we need better tax policy, a lower burden of government spending, less regulation and red tape, and better rule of law to limit government corruption.

But today’s focus is trade, so let’s look at a great video from Marginal Revolution University. Here’s Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University talking about the benefits of trade.

By the way, I didn’t notice it at first, but Tyler’s video doesn’t focus on international trade. He simply explains the benefit of trade among people.

But this also helps to explain why free trade across borders is good for growth. If it’s good for two people inside Virginia to engage in voluntary exchange, and if it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ohio to engage in voluntary exchange, then it’s also true that it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ireland to engage in voluntary exchange.

Another subtle yet important secondary point from the video is that central planning is folly because no single bureaucrat, or group of bureaucrats, will ever have the necessary knowledge (much less incentive) to properly allocate resources. To elaborate, you just listened to Prof. Cowen explain that one of the big benefits of trade is that people can specialize in things where they have a comparative advantage. And when people specialize, they develop greater knowledge in particular fields, which further increases their productivity. Yet it’s impossible for that diffuse knowledge to be centralized, much less used properly.

Which is why centrally planned economies such as North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela are such disasters.

And this also explains why nations that normally rely on markets get such bad results when politicians take control of specific sectors of the economy. Just consider the failures of Obamacare and the U.K.’s government-run healthcare system.

But let’s get back to the issue of trade.

Politicians sometimes make arguments about “economic patriotism.” If that simply meant, for instance, that they wanted a lower corporate tax rate to make American companies and workers more competitive, that would be fine.

But as we’ve seen with Obama, language about patriotism oftentimes is a ruse to push for protectionism and other bad policies.

And one of the reasons why the protectionism-patriotism argument doesn’t make sense is that it presumes a contest among nations. Yet as Walter Williams wisely explained, trade ultimately is between private individuals.

P.S. The MRU videos are great tutorials about economics. In prior posts, I’ve shared videos explaining how taxes destroy economic value, highlighting the valuable role of market-based prices, and revealing the destructive impact of government subsidies. They’re all worth a few minutes of your time.

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I’ve written several times about the foolish War on Drugs, which has been about as misguided and ineffective as the government’s War on Poverty.

So when I saw a news report about a couple of Swedes getting busted for smuggling 200-plus kilos of contraband into Norway, and then another story about a Russian getting caught trying to sneak 90 kilos of an illicit substance into the country, I wondered whether these were reports about cocaine or marijuana. Or perhaps heroin or crystal meth.

Hardly. Norway’s law enforcement community was protecting people from the horrible scourge of illegal butter.

Sounds absurd, but there’s been an increase in the demand for butter and high import taxes have created a huge incentive for black market butter sales. Here’s a video on this latest example of government stupidity.

I guess the moral of the story is that if you outlaw butter, only outlaws will have butter. Or perhaps butter is the gateway drug leading to whole milk consumption, red meat, salt, and other dietary sins. Surely Mayor Bloomberg will want to investigate.

By the way, the United States is not immune from foolish policies that line the pockets of criminals. Here’s a video from the Mackinac Center revealing how punitive tobacco taxes facilitate organized crime.

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