Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

Most folks in Washington are still digesting last night’s debate between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. If that’s what you care about, you can see my Twitter commentary, though I was so busy addressing specific issues that I failed to mention the most disturbing part of that event, which was the total absence of any discussion about the importance of liberty, freedom, and the Constitution.

But let’s set aside the distasteful world of politics and contemplate U.S. competitiveness. Specifically, let’s examine America’s position in the latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. This Report is partly a measure of policy (sort of like Economic Freedom of the World) and partly a measure of business efficiency and acumen.

The bad news is that we used to be ranked #1 and now we’re #3.

The good news is that being #3 is still pretty good, and it’s hard to beat Switzerland and Singapore because they have such good free-market policies. And that’s where America falls short.

Indeed, if you look at the top-10 nations and the three major measurements, you’ll notice that the United States ranks extremely high in “efficiency enhancers” and “innovation and sophistication factors,” both of which have a lot to do with the private sector’s competitiveness. But we have a mediocre (at least for developed nations) score for “basic requirements,” the area where government policy plays a big role.

Moreover, if you look at the the biggest obstacles to economic activity in the United States, the top 4 deal with bad government policy.

The tax treatment of companies is easily the main problem, as you might expect since we rank #94 out of 100 nations in a study of business tax policy.

Let’s now look at the indices where the United States scored especially low out of the 138 nations that were ranked.

America’s lowest scores were for exports (#130) and imports (#134), though I take issue with the Report‘s methodology, which is based on trade flows as a share of GDP. The problem with that approach is that the United States has a huge internal market, equal to about 22 percent of the world’s economic output. That’s why our trade flows aren’t very large relative to GDP. Being surrounded by two major oceans also probably has some dampening effect on cross-border trade flows. Yes, America is guilty of some protectionism, but I think our ranking for trade tariffs (#33) is the more appropriate and accurate measure of the degree to which there is a problem.

America also got a very bad score (#128) for government debt, though at least we beat Italy (#135), Greece (#137), and Japan (#138). In case you’re wondering, Hong Kong was #1, as you might expect from a well-run jurisdiction with small government and a flat tax.  Though I must say that it is rather disappointing that the Report doesn’t include rankings for the overall burden of government spending. After all, government debt is basically a symptom of an underlying problem of a bloated public sector.

And there also was a very low score for the business cost of terrorism (#104), which is probably an unavoidable consequence of being the world’s leading superpower (and therefore a target for crazies). That being said, I imagine America’s score could be improved if we weren’t engaging in needless intervention – and thus generating needless animosity – in places such as Syria and Libya.

Here are two indices that deserve special attention. As you can see the United States gets a poor score for wasteful spending and a terrible score for the punitive taxation of profits.

With this information in mind, let’s now remind ourselves about last night’s debate. Did either candidate propose to control spending and reduce pork-barrel programs? Nope.

Did either candidate put forth a realistic plan to lower the corporate tax rate? Hillary’s plan certainly doesn’t qualify since she wants a bunch of class-warfare tax hikes. And while Trump’s plan includes a lower corporate rate, it’s not a serious proposal since he is too timid to put forth a plan to restrain government outlays.

And since neither candidate intends to address America’s looming fiscal crisis, it will probably be just a matter of time before America drops in the rankings.

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Exactly five years, I created a Declaration of Dependence for my statist readers.

It was supposed to be satire, but after looking at some new estimates of dependency, I now wonder whether I accidentally foretold America’s future.

Anyhow, here’s how my attempt to be funny began.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people should be made equal, that they are endowed by their government with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are jobs, healthcare and housing.–That to secure these rights, Governments must rule over the people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the elite.

While I like to think I came up with a few clever lines, it’s hard to laugh when you think about what’s happened ever since America’s real Declaration of Independence.

Here’s what the Tax Foundation tells us about the evolution of taxation.

Since our country’s founding, we have witnessed…federal revenues taking up less than 5 percent of our economy to more than 20 percent. …Taxation in the United States in 1776 was incredibly different than what it is today. There were no income taxes, no corporate taxes, and no payroll taxes.

Instead, the government relied on a relatively modest set of tariffs and excise taxes.

…taxes primarily existed on imports of goods and services to the colonies, as well as on the sale of particular products. What sort of items were these tariffs imposed on? Primarily, they were levied on ships on a per-tonnage basis, slaves, tobacco, and alcoholic beverages. In all, the average tariff worked out to about 10 percent of the value of imports.

Amazingly, this very modest form of taxation lasted for more than 100 years. It wasn’t until that wretched day when the 16th Amendment was approved that the stage was set for the oppressive tax system that now exists.

By the way, when there was no income tax, there also was very little government spending.

For much of our nation’s history, federal outlays consumed less than 3 percent of economic output. The burden of Washington spending today, by contrast, amounts to more than 20 percent of GDP. And I hate to even think about the long-run projections since I become suicidal.

Oh, and let’s not forget the regulatory burden. We’ve gone from a system that had virtually no red tape to a nation that is now suffocating from a blizzard of bureaucratic edicts.

All of which makes today more costly, as the Washington Examiner reports.

Hundreds of federal regulations on beer, fireworks, hamburgers and even corn-on-the-cob cost families an additional $40, according to a new report on the July 4th tax. American Action Forum regulatory policy director Sam Batkins researched the regulations on the holiday treats to determine the costs. And they are huge.

Here’s the infographic he created.

Red tape adding $40 to our costs today? That will leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Let’s close on an upbeat and inspirational note by reading Professor Randy Barnett on the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

The Committee of Five consisted of the senior Pennsylvanian Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, New York’s Robert Livingston, the Massachusetts stalwart champion of independence John Adams, and a rather quiet thirty-three year old Virginian named Thomas Jefferson. After a series of meetings to decide on the outline of the declaration, the committee assigned Jefferson to write the first draft. …Jefferson did not have three leisurely weeks to write. He had merely a few days. Needing to work fast, Jefferson had to borrow, and he had two sources in front of him from which to crib. The first was his draft preamble for the Virginia constitution that contained a list of grievances, which was strikingly similar to the first group of charges against the King that ended up on the Declaration. The second was a preliminary version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights that had been drafted by George Mason in his room at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg where the provincial convention was being held. …Mason’s May 27th draft proved handy indeed in composing the Declaration’s famous preamble. Its first two articles present two fundamental ideas that lie at the core of a Republican Constitution. The first idea is that first come rights, and then comes government.

To be sure, the Founders’ view of rights was grossly imperfect. Blacks and Indians were grossly mistreated and women were not full citizens.

But by the standards that existed then, the America’s Founders did a remarkable job of curtailing the power of the state and enhancing the rights of individuals.

The good news is that there have been some significant expansions of liberty ever since the Declaration of Independence. A bloody war was fought in part to end the scourge of slavery. The toxic combination of racism and statism embodied by the Jim Crow laws has been abolished. And women now have full political and economic rights.

The bad news is that there also have been significant contractions of liberty in the economic sphere. It started with the so-called Progressive Era, particularly the disastrous tenure of Woodrow Wilson. It then accelerated during FDR’s economy-stifling New Deal. Government’s size and power further expanded during the grim LBJ-Nixon years. And, more recently, we witnessed the debacle of a Supreme Court ruling that the very limited enumerated powers in the Constitution somehow give the federal government the right to coerce individuals to buy products from private companies.

Notwithstanding all this bad news, I’m not quite ready to pack my bags for Australia.

The United States was the only nation founded on a set of philosophical principles and I’m very patriotic – in the proper sense of the word – about being an American.

I hope all American readers enjoy Independence Day. And in the spirit of the Founding Fathers, break a few rules. Dodge a tax, set off some illegal fireworks, and drive over the speed limit!

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Two days ago, I contrasted the views of Pope Francis and Walter Williams about capitalism and morality.

I explained that Walter had the upper hand because free markets are a positive-sum game based on voluntary exchange while redistribution (at best) is a zero-sum game based on coercion.

That’s the theoretical argument. Now let’s look at the empirical data, specifically focusing on which approach is best for the less fortunate.

Thomas Sowell, the great economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is not impressed by the Pope’s analysis. Here some of what Prof. Sowell wrote for Investor’s Business Daily.

Pope Francis has created political controversy…by blaming capitalism for many of the problems of the poor. …putting aside religious or philosophical questions, we have more than two centuries of historical evidence… Any serious look at the history of human beings over the millennia shows that the species began in poverty. It is not poverty, but prosperity, that needs explaining. …which has a better track record of helping the less fortunate — fighting for a bigger slice of the economic pie, or producing a bigger pie? …the official poverty level in the U.S. is the upper middle class in Mexico. The much criticized market economy of the U.S. has done far more for the poor than the ideology of the left. Pope Francis’ own native Argentina was once among the leading economies of the world, before it was ruined by the kind of ideological notions he is now promoting around the world.

I briefly discussed the failure of the Peronist Argentinian model last month, but let’s take a closer look at Professor Sowell’s assertions about the U.S. and Argentina.

My colleague at the Cato Institute, Marian Tupy, has put together a great fact-filled website called Human Progress, and it allows users to access all sorts of databases to produce their own charts and tables.

And here’s what the data shows about per-capita economic output in Argentina and the United States.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the supposedly more compassionate system in Argentina.

As you can see from this table, Argentina actually was slightly richer than the U.S. back in 1896. But that nation’s shift to statism, particularly after World War II, hindered Argentina’s growth rates.

And seemingly modest differences in growth, compounded over decades, have a huge impact on living standards for ordinary people (i.e., inflation-adjusted GDP per person climbing nearly $27,000 in the U.S. vs an increase of less than $6,700 in Argentina).

By the way, this is not an endorsement of America’s economic policy. We have far too much statism in the United States.

But compared to Argentina, which generally has ranked in the bottom quartile for economic freedom, the United States has a more market-friendly track record.

To help make the bigger point about the importance of economic liberty, let’s now compare the United States with a jurisdiction that consistently has been ranked as the world’s freest economy.

Look at changes in economic output in America and Hong Kong from 1950 to the present. As you can see, Hong Kong started the period as a very poor jurisdiction, with per-capita output only about one-fourth of American levels.

But thanks to better policy, which led to faster growth compounding over several decades, Hong Kong has now caught up to the United States.

What’s most remarkable, if you look at the table, is that per-capita output over the past 65 years has soared by more than 1,275 percent in Hong Kong.

Needless to say, if the U.S. is out-performing Argentina and Hong Kong is out-performing the U.S., then a comparison of Hong Kong and Argentina would yield ever starker results.

I actually did something like that back in 2011 and the results further underscore that there’s a very powerful relationship between economic policy and economic performance.

Which brings us back to the fundamental issue of what system is best for the less fortunate in society?

I suppose that’s a judgement call, but poor people obviously have higher incomes and more opportunity when there’s strong economic growth.

But as Margaret Thatcher famously explained, some people are so consumed by disdain for success that they’re willing to accept more suffering for poor people if they can simultaneously lower the incomes of rich people.

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Last month, I cited data from Economic Freedom of the World to explain that the United States was becoming less competitive because of creeping protectionism and reductions in the rule of law and property rights.

Now I have more bad news to share.

Last year, the United States ranked #12 for economic liberty.

But according to the new rankings released yesterday, the United States now has dropped to #16. Here are the new rankings (based on a 0-10 scale), with Hong Kong and Singapore once again leading the pack.

Why did the United States drop? In part, because our score fell from 7.81 to 7.73, but also because of what happened to the scores of other nations.

The bottom line is that Georgia, Taiwan, Qatar, Ireland, and the United Kingdom jumped ahead of the United States, while Finland fell behind America.

Now let’s get more depressed.

If you dig through the archives and get the rankings for 2000, you can see that the latest fall from #12 to #16 is part of a very disturbing pattern. The United States used to be #3 in the world, with a score of 8.5.

Wow, falling from 8.5 to 7.73. That’s definitely an indictment of statist policy during the Bush and Obama years.

But I’m going to share even more depressing data.

The folks at the Fraser Institute who put together Economic Freedom of the World retroactively alter scores and rankings as they get more data (sort of the way the U.S. government periodically revises GDP and employment data).

So if you look at their big excel spreadsheet, you’ll see that the United States actually wound up ranked #2 in 2000 with a score of 8.65, marginally ahead of Singapore, which had a score of 8.61.

So we’ve actually dropped from #2 to #16 in the rankings, and our score has plunged from 8.65 to 7.73.

I’ve saved the worst for last. I crunched the numbers to see which nations suffered the biggest declines since 2000. As you can see, the United States has the unfortunate distinction of being on a list with basket case economies such as Venezuela and Argentina.

To make matters worse, at least the U.K. has been moving in the right direction in recent years, with a slight increase from 7.80 to 7.87 between 2010 and 2013. And Iceland also has been trying to improve. Its score has jumped from 6.43 to 6.87 over the past three years.

The United States, by contrast, has downward momentum.

P.S. The nation with the biggest improvement since 2000 is Romania. Thanks to reforms such as the flat tax, its score has skyrocketed from 5.31 to 7.69, an increase of 2.38 points. At this rate, they’ll easily pass the United States in next year’s rankings.

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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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Back in 2013, I shared a snarky post comparing murder rates in Chicago and Houston. What made the data amusing is that any sensible person would look at Chicago’s high murder rate and strict gun control and conclude that perhaps, just maybe, such policies don’t work.

But the post speculated that a left-wing social scientist would instead conclude that “cold weather causes murder.”

Today, let’s take a more serious look at the issue.

Here’s a great video, narrated by Bill Whittle, that looks at gun ownership rates and murder rates. As you can see, America is the number one nation for gun ownership, but we’re nowhere near the top in murder rates.

Having had many arguments with leftists, I can tell you that their response to this video will be to point out that America has one of the highest murder rates if you look solely at developed nations.

That’s true, but this is why the most persuasive data in the video comes near the end when Bill looks at murder rates by major metropolitan areas.

He shows that pro-gun control cities have very high murder rates, whereas heavily armed, pro-gun places such as Plano, TX, have murder rates lower than some of the most tranquil places on the planet.

And although Bill doesn’t make the connection, it’s very much worth noting that Switzerland is one of the world’s most heavily armed nations, yet the murder rate is extremely low.

Moreover, there were no murders in the most recent years for which data are available in Monaco and Liechtenstein, yet I’ve been told during visits to both principalities that there is widespread private gun ownership.

Gee, maybe John Lott is right about more guns leading to less crime.

P.S. Since we’re sharing good news on guns, here’s a heartwarming story about civil disobedience. But this isn’t about civil disobedience solely by gun owners, as we’ve seen in Connecticut.

This is a story about civil disobedience sanctioned by a law enforcement officer!

J.D. Tuccille of Reason reports on the principled behavior of a sheriff in New York.

Fulton County Sheriff Thomas J. Lorey is already known as a supporter of the Second Amendment… Despite the Empire State’s fame as a jurisdiction unfriendly to private gun ownership—or, really, any activity beyond the reach of government officials—Lorey isn’t alone in his views. The New York State Sheriffs Association and individual sheriffs are already on record opposing tightened gun laws and suing the governor to block their enforcement. But Lorey goes a step further, and urges his constituents to defy the state’s handgun permit law. …”I’m asking everyone that gets those invitations to throw them in the garbage because that is where they belong,” says Lorey in the video below. “They go in the garbage because, for 100 years or more, ever since the inception of pistol permits, nobody has ever been required to renew them.”

Makes me proud to be an American when I read things like this.

Though I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see law enforcement officers express skepticism about gun control. A poll of cops found that they overwhelmingly reject the left’s anti-gun ideology.

And let’s not forget about the poll showing an overwhelming majority of regular citizens would engage in civil disobedience if the government tried to confiscate guns.

P.P.S. Since it’s Super Bowl weekend, here’s a depressing reminder of the NFL’s anti-gun bias.

P.P.P.S. If you like pro-Second Amendment videos, here’s a great collection.

And if you want gun control videos that are both funny and on the right side, here’s my collection.

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I’m tempted to feel a certain degree of sympathy for Paul Krugman.

As a leading proponent of the notion that bigger government stimulates growth (a.k.a., Keynesian economics), he’s in the rather difficult position of rationalizing why the economy was stagnant when Obama first took office and the burden of government spending was rising.

And he also has to somehow explain why the economy is now doing better at a time when the fiscal burden of government is declining.

But you have to give him credit for creativity. Writing in the New York Times, he attempts to square the circle.

Let’s start with his explanation for results in the United States.

…in America we haven’t had an official, declared policy of fiscal austerity — but we’ve nonetheless had plenty of austerity in practice, thanks to the federal sequester and sharp cuts by state and local governments.

If you define “austerity” as spending restraint, Krugman is right. Overall government spending has barely increased in recent years.

But then Krugman wants us to believe that there’s been a meaningful change in fiscal policy in the past year or so. Supposedly there’s been less so-called austerity and this explains why the economy is doing better.

The good news is that we…seem to have stopped tightening the screws: Public spending isn’t surging, but at least it has stopped falling. And the economy is doing much better as a result. We are finally starting to see the kind of growth, in employment and G.D.P., that we should have been seeing all along… What held us back was unprecedented public-sector austerity…now that this de facto austerity is easing, the economy is perking up.

But where’s his evidence? Whether you look at OMB data, IMF data, or OECD data, all those sources show that overall government spending has been steadily shrinking as a share of GDP ever since 2009.

And deficits also are shrinking as a share of economic output according to all these measures, so there’s still “austerity” regardless of whether we’re looking at the underlying disease of government spending or the symptom of red ink.

I sliced and diced the data to see if there was some way of justifying Krugman’s hypothesis and the only numbers that are (vaguely) supportive are the ones from the IMF that show total government spending (federal, state, and local) has increased by an average of 2.3 percent annually over the past two years, after increasing by 1.3 percent per year over the prior three years.

On that basis, one could sort of argue that Krugman is right and “austerity is easing.”

But if that’s his definition of victory, then I’m more than willing to let him be the winner. If we can constrain the public sector so that it grows at 2.3 percent annually, we’ll be complying with my Golden Rule and the burden of government spending will continue to slowly but surely shrink as a share of GDP.

And we’ll definitely have much better fiscal policy than we had between 2002-2009, when overall government spending rose by an average of 7.1 percent annually.

So does this mean Krugman and I are on the same page? During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, Rodney King famously asked, “Can we all get along?” Assuming Krugman is being serious, the answer in late 2014 is yes. It’s time to join hands and sing Kumbaya!

But you may sense a slight tone of sarcasm in my remarks, and that’s because Krugman surely doesn’t want government to “only” grow by 2.3 percent annually. He simply wants to justify his hypothesis that the economy’s improving performance is somehow due to less austerity. Even if that means he’s implicitly endorsing genuine spending restraint.

In other words, Krugman actually is being slippery and misleading in his analysis of American austerity.

But that’s nothing compared to his analysis of so-called austerity on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s some of what he wrote about fiscal policy in the United Kingdom.

…in 2010 Britain’s newly installed Conservative government declared that a sharp reduction in budget deficits was needed to keep Britain from turning into Greece. Over the next two years growth in the British economy, which had been recovering fairly well from the financial crisis, more or less stalled. In 2013, however, growth picked up again — and the British government claimed vindication for its policies. Was this claim justified? No, not at all.

Krugman then claims that there was better economic performance because U.K. politicians decided against “further cuts.”

What actually happened was that the Tories stopped tightening the screws — they didn’t reverse the austerity that had already occurred, but they effectively put a hold on further cuts. …And sure enough, the nation started feeling better.

So is he right?

Well, the IMF numbers show that overall government spending has been growing, on average, by 2 percent annually since 2009. By today’s standards, that’s a decent record of spending restraint.

But what if we dissect the numbers? Did spending grow very slowly between 2010-2012, followed by a relaxation of restraint beginning in 2013? In other words, is Krugman’s argument legitimate, even if it requires him to implicitly endorse (as in the American example) decent fiscal discipline over the past two years?

Nope. Instead, the numbers show just the opposite. Between 2010-2012, the burden of government spending expanded by an average of 2.3 percent per year.

But over the past two years, the “austerity” has become tighter and the budget has grown by 1.5 percent annually.

In other words, it seems that Krugman is either sloppy or mendacious.

Though I’m going to give him an escape hatch, a way of justifying his assertions. When the Tories took over in the United Kingdom, they quickly imposed a series of tax hikes (in addition to the tax hikes imposed by the outgoing Labor government). But since that time, the government has implemented some tax cuts, most notably reductions in corporate tax rates and lower tax rates on personal income.

So if Krugman wants to argue that tax increases retarded the British economy for a few years and that tax cuts are now helping to boost growth, I’m willing to give him a probationary membership in the supply-side club.

But I don’t expect him at the next meeting.

P.S. This isn’t the first time Krugman has mangled numbers when analyzing U.K. fiscal policy.

P.P.S. He’s also butchered data when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, and Germany,

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