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The United Nations has proposed a set of “sustainable development goals.” Most of them seem unobjectionable. After all, presumably everyone wants things such as less poverty, a cleaner environment, better education, and more growth, right?

That being said, I’m instinctively skeptical about the goal of “climate action” because of the U.N.’s past support for statist policies in that area.

And I also wonder why the bureaucrats picked “reduced inequalities” when “upward mobility for the poor” is a much better goal.

While I am tempted to nit-pick about some of the other goals as well, I’m actually more worried about how the U.N. thinks the goals should be achieved.

I participated in a U.N. conference in early April and almost every bureaucrat and government representative asserted that higher tax burdens were necessary to achieve the goals. It truly was a triumph of ideology over evidence.

And some of the cheerleaders for this initiative have a very extreme view on these issues. Consider a new report, issued by Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, that ranks nations based on how successful they are at achieving the sustainable development goals. Jeffrey Sachs was the lead author, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised to discover that there are some very odd results.

Bernie Sanders will be naively happy since the Nordic nations dominate the top of the rankings. The United States is #42, by contrast, sandwiched between Argentina and Armenia. Moreover, the United States is behind countries such as Hungary, Belarus, Portugal, Moldova, Greece, and Ukraine, which seems strange because Americans enjoy significantly higher levels of consumption – even when compared to other rich jurisdictions.

But the most absurd feature – at least for anyone with the slightest familiarity with international economic data – is that Cuba (circled in green) is ranked considerably above the United States (circled in red).

This is a jaw-droppingly stupid assertion. Cuba is a staggeringly impoverished nation thanks to an oppressive communist dictatorship.

So how can Sachs and his colleagues produce a report putting that country well above a rich nation like the United States?

Let’s look at some of the data. Here’s the summary of Cuba from the report. Pay particular attention to the circle on the right. If the blue bars extend to the outer edge, that means the country supposedly is doing a very good job achieving a goal, whereas a small blue bar indicates poor performance.

And here is the same information for the United States.

It appears that Cuba does much better for poverty (#1), responsible consumption (#12), climate action (#13), life on land (#15), and partnership (#17), while the United States while the United State does much better for industry, innovation, and infrastructure (#9).

But here’s an easier and more precise way of comparing the two nations. All you need to know is that green is the best, yellow is second best, followed by burnt orange, and red is the worst.

Cuba wins in nine categories and the United States is ranked higher in three categories.

Now here’s why most of these rankings are total nonsense. If you go to page 51 of the report, you’ll see the actual variables that are used to produce the scores for the 17 U.N. goals.

And what do you find? Well, here are some things that caught my eye.

  • For the first goal of “no poverty,” the report includes a measure of income distribution rather than poverty. This is same dodgy approach that’s been used by the Obama Administration and the OECD, and because almost everyone is Cuba is equally poor, that means it scores much higher than the United States, where everyone is richer, but with varying degrees of wealth. I’m not joking.
  • For the second goal of “zero hunger,” I can’t figure out how they concocted a higher score for Cuba. After all, there’s pervasive food rationing in that hellhole of an island. My best guess is that the United States gets downgraded because the category includes an obesity variable. Having a lot of overweight people may not be a good feature of America, but is it rude for me to point out that a large number of heavy people is the opposite of hunger?
  • Jumping ahead to the fifth goal of “gender equality,” I assume the United States gets a bad score because of the variable for the gender wage gap, even though women in America earn far higher incomes than their unfortunate and impoverished counterparts in Cuba.
  • Regarding the eighth goal of “decent work and economic growth,” it’s not clear how Sachs and his colleagues gave Cuba the best possible score. But I know the final result is preposterous given that the Cuban people are suffering from crippling material deprivation.
  • For the twelfth (“responsible consumption and production”) and thirteenth (“climate action”) goals, it appears that the United States gets a lower score because rich nations consume more energy than poor nations. If this is why Cuba beats the USA (just as they “scored higher” in the so-called Happy Planet Index), then I’m glad America loses that contest.
  • Last but not least, I can’t resist commenting on Cuba getting the best score and the U.S. getting worst score for “partnerships,” which is the seventeenth goal. If you read the fine print, it turns out that nations get better grades if their tax burdens are higher. And countries like the United States get downgraded because they are tax havens and/or they respect financial privacy.

The main takeaway is that Sachs and his colleagues produced a shoddy report based on statist ideology and – in many cases – on dodgy methodology.

Anyone who ranks Cuba above the United States when trying to measure quality of life should be treated like a laughingstock.

The report also ranks the ultra-rich and very successful nation of Singapore at #61, below poor countries such as Uzbekistan and Mexico. Are these people smoking crack? That’s even more absurd than the OECD’s report on Asian taxes, which basically pretended Singapore didn’t exist.

Heck the report also has dysfunctional Venezuela ahead of Panama, even though tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to Panama to escape their poorly governed nation. But I guess real-world evidence doesn’t matter to people trying to promote statism.

P.S. I got to tangle with Jeffrey Sachs at a United Nations conference on the state of the world economy back in 2012. Nothing has changed.

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I’ve been at the United Nations this week for both the 14th Session of the Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters as well as the Special Meeting of ECOSOC on International Cooperation in Tax Matters.

As you might suspect, it would be an understatement to say this puts me in the belly of the beast (for the second time!). Sort of a modern-day version of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.

These meetings are comprised of tax collectors from various nations, along with U.N. officials who – like their tax-free counterparts at other international bureaucracies – don’t have to comply with the tax laws of those countries.

In other words, there’s nobody on the side of taxpayers and the private sector (I’m merely an observer representing “civil society”).

I could share with you the details of the discussion, but 99 percent of the discussion was boring and arcane. So instead I’ll touch on two big-picture observations.

What the United Nations gets wrong: The bureaucracy assumes that higher taxes are a recipe for economic growth and development.

I’m not joking. I wrote last year about how many of the international bureaucracies are blindly asserting that higher taxes are pro-growth because government supposedly will productively “invest” any additional revenue. And this reflexive agitation for higher fiscal burdens has been very prevalent this week in New York City. It’s unclear whether participants actually believe their own rhetoric. I’ve shared with some of the folks the empirical data showing the western world became rich in the 1800s when fiscal burdens were very modest. But I’m not expecting any miraculous breakthroughs in economic understanding.

What the United Nations fails to get right: The bureaucracy does not appreciate that low rates are the best way of boosting tax compliance.

Most of the discussions focused on how tax laws, tax treaties, and tax agreements can and should be altered to extract more money from the business community. Participants occasionally groused about tax evasion, but the real focus was on ways to curtail tax avoidance. This is noteworthy because it confirms my point that the anti-tax competition work of international bureaucracies is guided by a desire to collect more revenue rather than to improve enforcement of existing law. But I raise this issue because of a sin of omission. At no point did any of the participants acknowledge that there’s a wealth of empirical evidence showing that low tax rates are the most effective way of encouraging tax compliance.

I realize that these observations are probably not a big shock. So in hopes of saying something worthwhile, I’ll close with a few additional observations

  • I had no idea that people could spend so much time discussing the technicalities of taxes on international shipping. I resisted the temptation to puncture my eardrums with an ice pick.
  • From the moment it was announced, I warned that the OECD’s project on base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) was designed to extract more money from the business community. The meeting convinced me that my original fears were – if possible – understated.
  • A not-so-subtle undercurrent in the meeting is that governments of rich nations, when there are squabbles over who gets to pillage taxpayers, are perfectly happy to stiff-arm governments from poor nations.
  • The representative from the U.S. government never expressed any pro-taxpayer or pro-growth sentiments, but he did express some opposition to the notion that profits of multinationals could be divvied up based on the level of GDP in various nations. I hope that meant opposition to “formula apportionment.”
  • Much of the discussion revolved around the taxation of multinational companies, but I was still nonetheless surprised that there was no discussion of the U.S. position as a very attractive tax haven.
  • The left’s goal (at least for statists from the developing world) is for the United Nations to have greater power over national tax policies, which does put the UN in conflict with the OECD, which wants to turn a multilateral convention into a pseudo-International Tax Organization.

P.S. The good news is that the folks at the United Nations have not threatened to toss me in jail. That means the bureaucrats in New York City are more tolerant of dissent than the folks at the OECD.

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I’m not a fan of international bureaucracies. Simply stated, they routinely promote statism, which translates into less freedom and prosperity.

But not all international bureaucracies are created equal. Most of my ire is directed at the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for the simple reason that those two institutions actually have some ability to subsidize or coerce bad policy.

The United Nations, by contrast, is largely ineffective and corrupt (or absurd, as seen by the effort to make taxpayer-funded birth control a “human right”). So while its even more left-leaning than the IMF and OECD, it doesn’t do as much damage.

Though that may change if the UN succeeds in its multi-year plan to seize control of the Internet, something that may happen because of feckless choices by the Obama Administration (if you think his FCC scheme to turn the Internet into a public utility is misguided, you’ll love what’s now happening).

Let’s review the situation. Here’s some background information from an article by James Glassman.

…the Internet has been governed by the people who use it. In a bottom-up process remarkably free of political interference, the system brings together businesses, engineers, research institutions, civil society groups, and governments to make decisions by consensus. …this “multi-stakeholder model,” as it’s called, actually works, with real transparency and accountability. Rooted in the principles of seamless cross-border networks and freedom of expression, the Internet has been adopted faster than any other means of communication in history.

But the attitude of politicians and bureaucrats seems to be that if something works, it’s time to break it.

…the Internet’s good-governance model faces a serious threat. …the United Nations General…will consider new ways to govern the Internet, and authoritarian countries are pushing to give governments a bigger stake in decision-making. …Regimes like those in Russia, China, and Iran are themselves under serious threat, with their own Internet users criticizing government and uncovering corruption. What they want is a U.N.-style model, where every country has a vote, and those votes will boost the power of the governments casting them. One result could be a balkanized Internet where threatening speech, or commercial competition, is squelched at the border.

That’s not good news, as I can personally attest having been severely limited in my Internet access during a recent trip to China.

Surely the United States will oppose this agenda, right? That may have been true years ago, but not now.

…the United States has been a fervent supporter of the multi-stakeholder process. But last year, the Obama administration announced it would give up…now ICANN is up for grabs. It could end up being not just a manager of addresses but the main governing institution for the entire Internet.

And that means the heavy foot of government.

Consider the filing by the Group of 77 plus China — a coalition…that…says “… the overall authority for Internet related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States.” …Russia’s filing is even worse: “We consider it necessary [the document’s italics] to consecutively increase the role of governments in the Internet governance…”

The bottom line is that decisions by the Obama Administration have made it more likely that governments will compromise the efficiency and openness of the Internet.

In past meetings of this sort, the U.S. has managed to keep the authoritarians at bay, but the administration’s ICANN decision — another case of attempting to lead from behind — won’t help. ICANN is a tempting prize for China and other countries. …The real problem is that with WSIS+10, the United Nations has gained official acceptance as the arbiter of Internet governance. …the conference itself amplifies the danger of a takeover by forces that see a free Internet as an existential threat.

Glassman’s article was published in December. It’s now March.

What’s happened over the past few months?

We have a new column in the Wall Street Journal by Gordon Crovitz, and the developments have been in the wrong direction.

Two years after President Obama decided to give up U.S. protection of the open Internet, his administration is now considering how to give away power to other governments, most of which want a closed, censored Internet. …The plan was supposed to ensure that U.S. control could never be replaced “with a government-led or intergovernmental organization solution.” Yet it does precisely that, giving foreign governments new powers over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, and a path to full control. …Robin Gross…filed a dissent with Icann against upgrading the government role “from an advisory to a decisional role over Icann’s policies, operations and corporate governance matters.”

And here’s what this may mean.

The main risk of government control is to the root zone of the Internet, currently protected by the U.S. government through its contract with Icann. If authoritarian governments can get access to the underlying website names and addresses globally, they could disable sites they don’t like everywhere in the world, not just in their own countries. In secret planning discussions last year leaked to me, the Russian representative told other authoritarian governments that full government control over Internet stakeholders is a topic that “needs to be further examined” only after the U.S. withdraws, creating a vacuum of power.

So is there any way of stopping Obama from surrendering the Internet?

Crovitz explains that there is hope.

Congress has used budget bills to defund any action by the Obama administration to end the U.S. contract with Icann, at least through this September. …A new president should decide the wisdom of abandoning the Internet before it is given up with no chance of return. The Obama administration doesn’t like to acknowledge American exceptionalism, but the open Internet reflects the American values of free speech and open innovation. The Internet as we know it won’t survive if other governments get their way.

I suppose a key issue is whether Congress can extend the funding ban until next year, at which point there may (or may not!) be a President interested in protecting the Internet.

P.S. If the busybodies at the United Nations simply need a topic to keep them occupied, perhaps they should deal with the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse by their own bureaucrats.

Here are but a few of the recent examples of UN personnel abusing their position:

  • Just in the last few weeks, more children have come forward to allege sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.
  • In Haiti, UN personnel traded goods for sexual favors, exploiting several hundred women and girls.
  • In the Ivory Coast, ten UN peacekeepers reportedly gang raped a 13-year-old girl.
  • In Liberia, UN peacekeepers gave goods and presents in exchange for sex.
  • In Bosnia, some UN personnel not only patronized brothels featuring kidnapped women and victims of war, but also allegedly helped procure women for brothels.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

P.P.S. I confessed years ago to a fantasy involving the United Nations.

P.P.P.S. But when I read about the UN’s efforts for gun control, global taxation, UN-imposed taxes, a world currency, the Law of the Sea Treaty, tax harmonization, restrictions on American sovereignty, and climate-change statism, my real fantasy is to raze the building.

P.P.P.P.S. I actually participated in a conference at the UN a few years ago, sort of a personal Daniel-in-the-lion’s-den experience.

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What’s the best way to generate growth and prosperity for the developing world?

Looking at the incredible economic rise of jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it’s easy to answer that question. Simply put in place the rule of law, accompanied by free markets and small government.

But that answer, while unquestionably accurate, would mean less power and control for politicians and bureaucrats.

So you probably won’t be surprised to learn that when politicians and bureaucrats recently met to discuss this question, they decided that development could be best achieved with a policy of higher taxes and bigger government.

I’m not joking.

Reuters has a report on a new cartel-like agreement among governments to extract more money from the economy’s productive sector. Here are some key passages from the story.

Rich and poor countries agreed on Thursday to overhaul global finance for development, unlocking money for an ambitious agenda… The United Nations announced the deal on its website… Development experts estimate that it will cost over $3 trillion each year to finance the 17 new development goals… Central to the agreement is a framework for countries to generate more domestic tax revenues in order to finance their development agenda… Under the agreement, the UN Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters will be strengthened, the press release said.

Though there’s not total agreement within this crooks’ cartel. There’s a fight over which international bureaucracy will have the biggest role. Should it be the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is perceived as representing the interests of revenue-hungry politicians from the developed world?

Or should it be the United Nations, which is perceived as representing the interests of revenue-hungry politicians from the developing world?

Think of this battle as being somewhat akin to the fight between various socialist sects (Mensheviks, Trotskyites, Stalinists, etc) as the Soviet Union came to power.

Bloomberg has a story on this squabble.

Responsibility for tax standards should be moved to the UN from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of 34 rich countries, according to a position paper endorsed by 142 civil-society groups. …Tove Maria Ryding from the European Network on Debt and Development, [said] “Our global tax decision-making system is anything but democratic, excluding more than half of the world’s nations.”

I’m tempted to laugh about the notion that there’s anything remotely democratic about either the UN or OECD. Both international organizations are filled with unelected (and tax-free) bureaucrats.

But more importantly, it’s bad news for either organization to have any power over the global economy. Both bureaucracies want to replace tax competition with tax harmonization, precisely because of a desire to enable big expansion is the size and power of governments.

This greed for more revenue already has produced some bad policies, including an incredibly risky scheme to collect and share private financial information, as well as a global pact that could be the genesis of a world tax organization.

And there are more troubling developments.

Here are some excerpts from another Bloomberg report.

Step aside, Doctors Without Borders. …A team called Tax Inspectors Without Borders will be…established next week by the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. …Tax Inspectors Without Borders would take on projects or audits either by flying in to hold workshops…or embedding themselves full time in a tax agency for several months… “There is a lot of enthusiasm from developing countries” for this initiative, said John Christensen, the U.K.-based director of the nonprofit Tax Justice Network.

Gee, what a surprise. Politicians and bureaucrats have “a lot of enthusiasm” for policies that will increase their power and money.

But at the risk of repeating myself, the more serious point to make is that bigger government in the developing world is not a recipe for economic development.

The western world became rich when government was very small. As noted above, Hong Kong and Singapore more recently became rich with small government.

But can anyone name a country that became rich with big government?

I’ve posed that question over and over again to my leftist friends and they never have a good answer.

If we want the third world to converge with rich nations, they need to follow the policies that enabled rich nations to become rich in the first place.

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I’m a firm believer in climate change. Heck, there have been several ice ages and warming periods, so it’s obvious that temperatures shift over time.

And while I’m not particularly qualified to assess such matters, I’m also willing to believe that human activity has an effect on climate.

Moreover, even though I much prefer warm weather, I’m also open to the idea that global warming might be a bad thing that requires some action.

But here’s the catch. I don’t trust radical environmentalists. Simply stated, too many of these people are nuts.

Then there’s the super-nutty category.

But you know what’s even worse than a nutty environmentalist?

What terrifies me far more are the very serious, very connected, and very powerful non-nutty environmentalists who hold positions of real power. These folks are filled with arrogance and hubris and they have immense power to cause damage.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s some of what was contained in a release from the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe.

By the way, remember that these excerpts are not the unhinged speculation of some crazy conservative or libertarian. These are actually the words – and stated intentions – of the U.N. bureaucracy. They want central planning on steroids.

Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC,  warns that the fight against climate change is a process and that the necessary transformation of the world economy will not be decided at one conference or in one agreement. …”This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the industrial revolution. That will not happen overnight and it will not happen at a single conference on climate change, be it COP 15, 21, 40 – you choose the number. It just does not occur like that. It is a process, because of the depth of the transformation.”

Wow. These people want to “intentionally…change the economic development model” that has produced unimagined prosperity.

And they want to replace it with central planning by people who have never demonstrated any ability to generate wealth.

I’m not joking. If you look at Ms. Figueres’ Wikipedia page, you’ll see that she has even less experience in the private sector than President Obama.

Yup, just exactly the kind of pampered (and tax-free) global bureaucrat who should have the power to treat the global economy as some sort of Lego set.

Thomas Sowell has made the very important observation that there’s a giant difference between intelligence and wisdom and Ms. Figueres is a perfect example.

To give you an idea of her cloistered and narrow mindset, she was quoted by Bloomberg as expressing admiration for China’s totalitarian regime over America’s democratic system merely because it ostensibly produces the policies she prefers.

China, the top emitter of greenhouse gases, is also the country that’s “doing it right” when it comes to addressing global warming, the United Nations’ chief climate official said. …China is also able to implement policies because its political system avoids some of the legislative hurdles seen in countries including the U.S., Figueres said. …The political divide in the U.S. Congress has slowed efforts to pass climate legislation and is “very detrimental” to the fight against global warming, she said.

And the icing on the cake, needless to say, is that China’s environment is a catastrophe compared to the much cleaner air and water that exist in the United States!

Though you won’t be surprised to learn that Ms. Figueres is a great admirer of President Obama, even if he does represent a backwards democracy.

The climate chief even held up President Obama as a shining example of steps countries can take to tackle global warming.

Reminds me of a saying about birds of a feather, though I’m not sure how a bird with two left wings can get off the ground.

And don’t even get me started on all the exaggeration and hyperbole that is generated by the radical environmentalists. Though this Jim McKee cartoon is too good not to share.

P.S. Environmentalists are also grotesque hypocrites, as you can see here and here.

P.P.S. But to close on an upbeat note, we have some decent environmental humor here, here, here, and here.

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When discussing how to boost growth, economists often discuss the importance of human capital and physical capital.

Those are key factors driving economic performance. After all, improvements in human capital mean a more productive workforce. And improvements in physical capital mean greater output per hour worked.

So you can see why I want lower tax rates and less intervention. Simply stated, we’re far more likely to increase – and effectively utilize – human and physical capital when markets allocate resources rather than politicians.

But there’s another form of capital that’s also important. It’s difficult to measure, but I suspect it also plays a huge role in determining a nation’s long-run prosperity.

For lack of a better term, let’s call it social capital, and it refers to the attitudes of a country’s people. I’m not sure how to define social capital, but here are a series of questions that capture what I’m trying to describe: Do the people of a nation believe in the work ethic? Or would they be comfortable as wards of the state, living off others? Are they motivated by the spirit of self-reliance? Would they be ashamed to go on welfare? Do they think the government is obligated to give them things?

The answers to these questions matter a lot because a nation can’t prosper once you reach a tipping point of too many people riding in the wagon and too few people producing.

Here’s what I wrote earlier this year.

…a nation is doomed when a majority of its people decide that it is morally and economically okay to live off the labor of others and want to use the coercive power of government to make it happen. For lack of a better term, we can call this a country’s Dependency Ratio, and it’s a measure of eroding social capital. To what degree, in other words, has the entitlement mentality replaced the work ethic and the spirit of self reliance?

I raise this issue because I want to share two items.

First, here’s some very good news about the United States. According to a new poll from YouGov about attitudes in the United States and United Kingdom, Americans are far more likely to believe they have a moral right to their earnings. Brits, by contrast, overwhelmingly believe that government has a greater moral claim to people’s earnings.

Makes me proud to be American, just as I was back in 2011 when reporting on some Pew research that also showed Americans had a greater spirit of self reliance.

The Brits, by contrast, seem to be moving in the wrong direction. Some of the blame belongs to supposedly right-wing politicians such as David Cameron, George Osborne, and David Gauke, all of whom have argued that people have a moral obligation to pay more to the state than is legally required.

In any event, it’s disturbing to see that people in the United Kingdom have such a warped moral perspective. Which raises the question of whether it’s possible to restore social capital once it’s been eroded?

Or is that a futile task once people have learned a dependency mindset, sort of like trying to put toothpaste back in a tube.

We have some research from Germany that offers guidance on these questions, which is the second item I want to share. Here are excerpts from a story in the Boston Globe.

…If you were a researcher trying to determine how a political system affects people’s values, beliefs, and behavior, you would ideally want to take two identical populations, separate them for a generation or two, and subject them each to two totally different kinds of government. Then you’d want to measure the results… Ethically, such a study would be unthinkable even to propose. But when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, it created what London School of Economics associate professor Daniel Sturm calls a “perfect experiment.” The two halves of the country were like a pair of identical twins separated at birth and raised by two very different sets of parents.

And what did this experiment produce?

The bad news is that living in a statist regime did erode social capital.

…the researchers didn’t know what to expect. On the one hand, East Germans might be resentful of the system that had constrained their lives; on the other hand, it was also plausible that they had become comfortable with the notion that a government would provide for basic needs at the expense of an open society. Alesina and Fuchs-Schundeln used data from a German survey administered in 1997, and split the respondents into two groups based on where they had lived before reunification. What they found was that, at that point, people from the East still tended to believe in the social-service model. They were also more likely to support a robust government program to help the unemployed…

But the good news is that at least some of the toothpaste of self reliance can be put back in the tube.

It goes the other way too, if slowly: When Alesina and Fuchs-Schundeln looked at survey results from 2002, they found that the two groups of Germans had begun to converge politically. Based on the data, they estimated that it would take between one and two generations—20 to 40 years— for the gap to fully close, and “for an average East German to have the same views on state intervention as an average West German.” …In a separate but related study, it was shown that watching Western TV had actually shaped East Germans’ views about work and chance, making them “more inclined to believe that effort rather than luck determines success in life.”

So what’s the moral of the story?

I guess I’m a tad bit optimistic after learning about this research. I was worried that social capital couldn’t be restored.

So maybe if we force everyone in Greece and Italy to watch my video on free markets and small government, there’s a chance those societies can be salvaged! (But let’s not show it to the French since we’ll always need bad examples.)

P.S. These two cartoons show the dangers of the entitlement mentality.

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The United Nations is not nearly as bad as other international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or the International Monetary Fund.

But that’s because the U.N. tends to be completely ineffective. So even when the bureaucrats push for bad policy, they don’t have much ability to move the ball in the wrong direction.

But just like a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn, the United Nations periodically does something that genuinely would expand the power and burden of government.

And that’s what happening this week in Moscow. Under the “leadership” of the U.N.’s World Health Organization, hundreds of bureaucrats have descended on the city for the “Conference of the Parties (COP6) to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).”

But this isn’t the usual junket. The bureaucrats are pushing to create “guidelines” for tobacco taxation. Most notably, they want excise taxes to be at least 70 percent of the cost of a pack of cigarettes.

I’m not a smoker and never have been, but this is offensive for several reasons.

1. Enabling bigger government.

If there were five gas stations in your town and the owners all met behind closed doors to discuss pricing, would the result be higher prices or lower prices? Needless to say, the owners would want higher prices. After all, the consumer benefits when there is competition but the owners of the gas stations benefit if there’s a cartel. The same is true with government officials. They don’t like tax competition and would prefer that a tax cartel instead. And when tax rates get harmonized, they always go up and never go down. Which is what you might expect when you create an “OPEC for politicians.”   In their minds, if all governments agree that excise taxes must be 70 percent of the cost of cigarettes, they think they’ll got a lot more tax revenue that can be used to buy votes and expand government.

2. Promoting criminal activity.

In the previous paragraph, I deliberately wrote that politicians “think they’ll get” rather than “will get” a lot more tax revenue. That’s because, in the real world, there’s a Laffer Curve. We have lots of evidence that higher tobacco taxes don’t generate revenue and instead are a boon for smugglers, criminal gangs, and others that are willing to go underground and provide cigarettes in the black market. We saw this in Bulgaria and Romania.  We saw in in Quebec and Michigan. And we saw it in Ireland and Washington, DC. As I explained a couple of years ago, “In many countries, a substantial share of cigarettes are black market or counterfeit. They put it in a Marlboro packet, but it’s not a Marlboro cigarette. Obviously it’s a big thing for organized crime.” And if the WHO succeeds, the problem will get far worse.

3. Eroding national sovereignty.

 Or maybe this section should be called eroding democratic accountability and control. In any event, the issue is that international bureaucracies should not be in the position of seeking to impose one-size-fits-all policies on the world. Particularly when you get perverse results, such as bureaucrats from health ministries and departments supplanting the role of finance ministries and treasury departments. Or when the result is earmarked taxes, which even the IMF warns is problematical since, “Earmarking creates pots of money that can invite corruption and, unchecked, it can lead to a plethora of small nuisance taxes.” And keep in mind the WHO operates in a non-transparent and corrupt fashion.

For more information, Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has a thorough analysis of the dangers of global taxation.

By the way, the health community will argue that globally coerced tobacco tax hikes are a good idea since the money can be used to fund programs that discourage tobacco use.

Yet we have some experience in this area. Many years ago, state politicians bullied tobacco companies into a giant cash settlement, accompanied by promises that much of the money would be used to fight tobacco use.

But, as NPR reports, politicians couldn’t resist squandering the money in other areas.

So far tobacco companies have paid more than $100 billion to state governments as part of the 25-year, $246 billion settlement. …all across the country hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to states, and the states have made choices not to spend the money on public health and tobacco prevention. …Myron Levin covered the tobacco industry for the Los Angeles Times for many years and is also the founder of the health and safety news site Fair Warning. He says talking states into spending settlement money on tobacco prevention is a tough sell.

Even when the politicians are asked to spend only a tiny fraction of the money on anti-smoking programs.

To help guide state governments, in 2007 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that states reinvest 14 percent of the money from the settlement and tobacco taxes in anti-smoking programs. But most state governments have decided to prioritize other things.

Needless to say, governments around the world will behave like state governments in America. Any additional tax revenue will be used to expand the burden of government spending.

Let’s close with some big-picture analysis. Bureaucracies inevitably seem drawn to mission creep, which occurs when agencies and departments get involved in more and more areas in order to get more staffing and bigger budgets.

But when that happens, the core mission tends to get less attention. For many bureaucracies, that probably doesn’t matter since the core mission probably doesn’t have any value (HUD, anyone?).

But presumably there is a legitimate government role in preventing something like infectious diseases. So why isn’t WHO focused solely on things such as Ebola and SARS rather than engaging in ideological campaigns to expand the size and scope of government?

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