Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Welfare State’ Category

I freely admit that I don’t like President Biden’s fiscal agenda in part because of my libertarianism. Simply stated, I’m instinctively skeptical when someone wants to expand government.

But I’m also an economist who believes in cost-benefit analysis. Moreover, I recognize that there are “public goods” that the private sector can’t – or isn’t allowed to – provide.

So I’m a big believer in looking at evidence to see if a proposed expansion of government makes sense.

As such, if we review the economic performance of nations that have already adopted Biden-type policies – such as Western Europe’s welfare states, that should tell us whether those policies are a good idea for the United States.

Well, if that kind of evidence matters, the answer surely is negative.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized on this topic a few days ago and reached a similar conclusion.

Here are some key excerpts.

“To oppose these investments is to be complicit in America’s decline,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday, adding that “other countries are speeding up and America is falling behind.” …You have to admire the audacity of pitching higher taxes and more social welfare as the path to national revival, especially when the global evidence is the opposite. The result of Mr. Biden’s expanded entitlements is likely to be reduced incentives to work and invest, slower economic growth, lower living standards.

The editorial is filled with hard data on the sub-par performance of various European nations.

That’s the lesson from Europe’s cradle-to-grave welfare states… European jobless rates tend to be much higher than in the U.S., especially for the young. In 2019 labor participation was 62.6% in the U.S. versus 49.7% in Italy, 55% in France, 57.7% in Spain, 59.3% in Portugal and 61.3% in Germany. …U.S. GDP growth still averaged 2.3% from 2010 to 2019, surpassing Italy (0.27%), Portugal (0.86%), Spain (1.07%), France (1.42%) and Germany (1.97%). …Mr. Biden’s plan would empower the government, pile burdens on the private economy, and erode upward mobility by encouraging people not to work. That’s the real recipe for decline.

And let’s not forget that scholarly research also shows that bigger government leads to economic weakness.

P.S. the WSJ editorial also made a very important point that European-style welfare expansions necessarily require huge tax increases on lower-income and middle-class households.

Europe’s little-discussed secret is that its cradle-to-grave welfare states are financed by the middle class via value-added and payroll taxes. The combined employer-employee social security tax rate is 36% in Spain, 40% in Italy and 65% in France. Value-added taxes in most European economies are around 20%. There simply aren’t enough rich to finance their entitlements.

For what it’s worth, Biden wants people to believe that all his new entitlement expansions can be financed with class-warfare taxes on upper-income households.

Even Paul Krugman admits that is preposterously false.

P.P.S. What’s especially revealing is that European nations have been falling further behind the United States, making them members of the “Anti-Convergence Club.”

Read Full Post »

When asked to list the worst presidents of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon belong on the list.

But this Reason video with Amity Shlaes shows why Lyndon Johnson also is among the worst of the worst.

 

You should watch every second of the video, but if you don’t have 33 minutes to spare, here’s a helpful summary.

Johnson declared war on poverty, jacked up federal spending on education, and pushed massive new entitlement programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, which promised to deliver high-quality, low-cost health care to the nation’s elderly and poor. …But did the Great Society achieve its goals of eradicating poverty, sheltering the homeless, and helping all citizens participate more fully in the American Dream? In Great Society: A New History, Amity Shlaes argues that Lyndon Johnson’s bold makeover of the government was a massive failure.

Massive failure may be an understatement.

LBJ’s two big entitlement programs, Medicare and Medicaid, are the biggest reason why America will suffer a future fiscal crisis.

And his so-called War on Poverty was a disaster for both taxpayers and poor people.

How much of a disaster?

Let’s augment Amity’s analysis with these excerpts from Jason Riley’s column in the Wall Street Journal.

Entitlement programs were dramatically expanded in the 1960s in the service of a war on poverty, yet poverty fell at a slower rate after the Great Society initiatives were implemented, and overall dependency on the government for food, shelter and other basic necessities increased. …Liberals pitch these social programs in the name of helping underprivileged minority groups and reducing inequality, but the lesson of the 1960s is that government relief can put in place incentives that have the opposite effect. Between 1940 and 1960 the percentage of black families living in poverty declined by 40 points… No welfare program has ever come close to replicating that rate of black advancement… Moreover, what we experienced in the wake of the Great Society interventions was slower progress or outright retrogression. Black labor-force participation rates fell, black unemployment rates rose, and the black nuclear family disintegrated. In 1960 fewer than 25% of black children were being raised by a single mother; within four decades, it was more than half. …The welfare state is often discussed in relation to its effect on racial and ethnic minorities, yet crime, single parenting and drug abuse also increased among poor whites in the aftermath of the Great Society. When the government indulges and subsidizes counterproductive behavior, we tend to get more of it.

What’s depressing is that Biden wants to replicate LBJ’s mistakes. His new entitlements will mean slower growth and more dependency.

P.S. Amity Shlaes also has done great work to highlight the achievements of one of America’s best presidents.

Read Full Post »

A couple of days ago, I shared the most-recent data about “actual individual consumption” in nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

My goal was to emphasize my oft-stated point about people in the United States enjoying higher living standards – in large part because European nations are saddled with a bigger fiscal burden of government.

President Biden, however, wants to make the United States more like Europe.

What’s happening this week in Congress may determine whether he succeeds.

Since I’m policy wonk rather than a political pundit, I don’t pretend to have any great insight on matters such as vote counting.

But I feel compelled to warn that adoption of Biden’s plan would have a negative economic impact.

And I’m not the only one raising alarm bells.

Professor Greg Mankiw of Harvard opined for the New York Times about Biden’s fiscal plan. He starts be noting that Biden’s plan is affordable.

President Biden and many congressional Democrats aim to expand the size and scope of government substantially. …People of all ages are in line to get something… If there is a common theme, it is that when you need a helping hand, the government will be there for you. …Western European nations have more generous social safety nets than the United States. The Biden plan takes a big step in that direction. Can the United States afford to embrace a larger welfare state? From a narrow budgetary standpoint, the answer is yes.

But affordable is not the same as sensible.

He points out that a bigger government will mean a smaller economy.

The costs of an expanded welfare state…extend beyond those reported in the budget. There are also broader economic effects. Arthur Okun, the former economic adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, addressed this timeless issue in his 1975 book, “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff.” …As policymakers attempt to rectify the market’s outcome by equalizing the slices, the pie tends to shrink. …Which brings us back to Western Europe. Compared with the United States, G.D.P. per person in 2019 was 14 percent lower in Germany, 24 percent lower in France and 26 percent lower in the United Kingdom. …In other words, most European nations use that leaky bucket more than the United States does and experience greater leakage, resulting in lower incomes. By aiming for more compassionate economies, they have created less prosperous ones.

And less prosperous economies mean lower living standards, as honest folks on the left (such as Okun) openly admit.

That’s bad news for everyone, including lower-income people who theoretically are supposed to benefit from the various new and expanded redistribution programs in Biden’s fiscal plan.

Yes, they may get money from government in their pockets in the short run, but even a small reduction in economic growth will lead to larger income losses in the long run.

The bottom line is that the American experiment has been successful. Why put it at risk by copying nations that aren’t as successful.

After all, you don’t want to “catch up” to countries that are lagging.

Read Full Post »

A very persuasive argument against Biden’s fiscal agenda is that it makes no sense to copy the fiscal policies of European welfare states.

Indeed, I routinely share this column from January, which looks at three different measures of comparative prosperity – all of which show the United States is way ahead of nations on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the three data sources is this comparison of “actual individual consumption” (AIC) in the member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

We now have updated AIC numbers. Here’s a look at the OECD’s latest data. As you can see, people in the United States enjoy levels of consumption 50 percent above the average for developed nations.

The U.S. is even way ahead of oil-rich Norway and the tax havens of Luxembourg and Switzerland.

By the way, if you look at the OECD’s technical definition, AIC includes “government expenditure on individual consumption goods and services,” so the gap between the United States and other nations is not a statistical quirk based on whether government is (or is not) paying for things.

P.S. I can’t resist a couple of closing observations. If you click on the OECD’s link for AIC, you’ll notice that there are seven years of data, thus showing which nations are moving in the right direction or wrong direction (relative to other OECD countries).

  • Eastern European nations tend to have the largest increases, as one might expect based on convergence theory (these nations fell way behind because of communist mismanagement). But the biggest increase was enjoyed by Lithuania, which also is very highly ranked for economic liberty. Not a coincidence.
  • Nations that suffered noticeable declines include Japan (no surprise), along with Italy and Greece (even less of a surprise).

The moral of the story is that smaller government is part of the recipe for greater prosperity, even if that’s not the approach preferred by vote-buying politicians.

P.P.S. Click here is you want an estimate of how much economic damage would be caused by Biden’s fiscal agenda.

Read Full Post »

Ten days ago, I shared some data and evidence illustrating how redistribution programs result in high implicit tax rates and thus discourage low-income people from climbing the economic ladder.

Simply stated, why work harder or work more when an additional dollar of income only leads to a net benefit of 10 cents or 20 cents? Or why work harder or work more when you can actually wind up being worse off?

Or why work at all if the governments provides enough goodies?

But don’t ask such questions if you’re in the same room as Helaine Olen of the Washington Post. She is very upset that some people think welfare payments discourage work.

It’s a dangerous myth, this idea that government help causes some people to just loaf off. It’s also untrue. Reminder: Before the pandemic, most working-age people receiving benefits like food stamps worked. They just didn’t earn enough money. …the temporary child tax credit signed into law this year by President Biden demonstrates the opposite. It is an extraordinary success. Almost 90 percent of families with children under age 18 are eligible to receive a monthly check from the federal government through the end of the year. …Many other developed nations offer almost all residents a child allowance of some sort.

If you read the entire column, you’ll notice that she provides very little evidence, particularly considering her very bold assertion that a negative link between redistribution and labor supply is “a dangerous myth.”

Yet we know from the experience of welfare reform in the 1990s that work requirements did boost labor supply.

And don’t forget about the very recent evidence that turbo-charged unemployment benefits encouraged more joblessness.

We also have evidence from overseas showing that there’s a negative relationship between handouts and idleness.

Including research from the Netherlands and the Nordic nations such as Denmark. And the same is true in Canada. And the United Kingdom.

Ms. Olen seems primarily motivated by her support for permanent per-child handouts, as President Biden has proposed.

And she wants us to believe that everyone will continue to work, even if they can get $3000-plus for each kid, along with all the other goodies that are provided by Uncle Sam (often topped up by state governments).

For what it’s worth, I think she admits her real agenda toward the end of her column.

…an argument can be made that the children of the irresponsible deserve more support from us, not less. Children can’t push their parents to get with the work-and-education program. As a result, you’re not “helping” children if you insist on financially punishing their parents for not making an “effort.” …human infrastructure matters too.

In other words, Ms. Olen seems to share Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s view that money should be given to people “unwilling to work.”

Which is how some of our friends actually view the world. They think there is a right to other people’s money. Which is why they support big handouts, including so-called basic income.

The bottom line is that Biden’s per-child handouts and other expansions of the welfare state clearly would make work less attractive for some people.

Not all people, of course, because it takes time to erode societal capital.

But why would we want a society where a growing number of people think it’s okay to live off of others?

P.S. There is scholarly research that redistribution programs lure older people out of the workforce.

P.P.S. There is also scholarly research showing redistribution programs discourage households from building wealth.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday’s column was a completely serious look at five graphs and tables that show why Biden’s tax plan is misguided.

Today, we’re going to make the same point with satire. And we’ll only need two images.

First, here’s a look at what happens when politicians create never-ending handouts financed by ever-higher taxes on an ever-smaller group of rich taxpayers.

In the past, I’ve referred to this as “Greece-ification” and Biden’s fiscal plan definitely qualifies.

It’s also a different way of looking at the second cartoon from this depiction of how a welfare state evolves over time.

This Chuck Asay cartoon makes the same point.

Second, here’s a cartoon that nicely captures why I think Biden’s agenda will erode the nation’s societal capital.

The same theme as this excellent cartoon.

While amusing, there’s a very serious point to be made. Politicians already have created a system that rewards people for doing nothing while punishing them for creating wealth.

Those policies hinder American prosperity (as honest folks on the left acknowledge), but we can survive with slower growth. What really worries me is that we may eventually reach a tipping point of too many people riding in the wagon (and out-voting the people who pull the wagon).

Simply stated, we don’t want America to become another Greece.

Read Full Post »

More than 10 years ago, I wrote about President Obama’s disingenuous strategy of pretending that spending increases were tax cuts.

Politicians in Washington have come up with something far more impressive than turning lead into gold or water into wine. Using self-serving budget rules, they can increase the burden of government spending and say they are cutting taxes instead. This bit of legerdemain is made possible…by adopting or expanding refundable tax credits. But in this case, “refundable” does not mean the government is returning money to taxpayers. Instead, it means that money is being redistributed to people who do not earn enough to be subject to the income tax. This is hardly a trivial issue. …the amount of income redistribution being laundered through the tax code is now so large that the bottom 40 percent of the population has a negative “effective” income tax rate.

Indeed, the IRS is now the biggest redistribution agency in the world, in charge of giving away a massive amount of money.

Far more than is spent on traditional welfare (what used to be called aid to families with dependent children and was reclassified as temporary aid to needy families), as illustrated by the chart.

The so-called earned income tax credit is the biggest redistribution program, though there’s also a large amount of spending on child credits.

And the cost of the so-called child credits is going to explode if President Biden’s plan for per-child handouts is approved.

Matt Weidinger of the American Enterprise Institute opined on Biden’s version of political alchemy.

Democrats are fond of saying their massive $3.5 trillion spending bill includes significant “tax cuts.” They are referring to the effects of continuing the expanded child tax credit… President Biden said it was “one of the largest-ever single tax cuts for families with children.” …The facts say otherwise. …Such payments to those who do not owe federal income taxes are known as “refundable” credits, or in budget terms “outlays” — the same as benefits provided under welfare, Medicaid, food stamps, and similar spending programs. The outlay portions of these tax credits are not “tax cuts” for the simple reason that the payments exceed any taxes the recipient owed in the first place. Put another way, it is impossible to “cut taxes” if you do not owe taxes.

And here’s the relevant table from the Joint Committee on Taxation.

By the way, note how the spending estimates decline after 2025.

This is a budget gimmick. To make Biden’s expansion of the welfare state seem less extravagant, supporters designed the proposal so the expanded per-child handouts disappear in 2026.

But they openly argue that they will be extended because of the assumption that many Americans will get hooked on “free” money from Washington.

P.S. I’m not a fan of child credits, even for families that pay taxes. Simply stated, there are other types of tax cuts that will do a much better job of boosting after-tax family income.

Read Full Post »

The welfare state and the so-called war on poverty has been very bad news for taxpayers.

But it’s also very bad news for poor people, in part because various redistribution programs can lure them out of the productive economy and into total dependency on government (and this will become an even bigger problem if Biden’s per-child handouts are approved).

But it’s also bad news because redistribution programs can result in very high implicit tax rates for low-income people who try to improve their lives by climbing the economic ladder.

I shared an example back in 2012, which showed how a single mother in Pennsylvania would be worse off with $57,000 of income instead of $29,000.

In other words, she would be dealing with a de facto marginal tax rate of more than 100 percent.

If you want to understand how this happens, Professors Craig Richardson and Richard McKenzie wrote about this topic in an article for The Library of Economics and Liberty.

…by expanding public assistance programs, the President’s plan will unavoidably impose a higher, hidden tax rate—known as an “implicit marginal income tax rate” (which we shorten to implicit tax rate)—on low-wage workers who receive welfare benefits. Those workers will pay an implicit tax rate because many welfare benefits are reduced as earnings rise. Ironically, the poorest Americans often pay implicit tax rates that are far higher than the IRS’s explicit marginal income-tax rates imposed on the country’s highest income earners. …Consider a household that receives benefits from only two welfare programs, with one tapering off at 20 cents for each added dollar earned and another tapering off at 40 cents for each added dollar earned. Those cuts create an implicit tax rate of 60 percent, which means the worker has only 40 cents in additional spendable income for each added dollar earned. This implicit tax rate can be expected to affect work incentives in much the same way that a federal income tax rate does.

The authors cite a real-world example.

…consider a real-life, low-income single mother of two children in Forsyth County, North Carolina earning $10 an hour in a full-time job, which means she has a monthly earned income of $1,600 (or $19,200 annually). Suppose the single mother receives monthly benefits from five welfare programs: $425 in food stamps, $1,471 in subsidized childcare, $370 in housing subsidies, $180 in WIC benefits, and $493 in an earned income tax credit (EITC). Her monthly welfare benefits will total $2,939 (or $35,271 a year). Now, suppose the single mother takes a new job paying $15 an hour, a 50 percent increase. Her monthly earned income will rise by $800 to $2,400 (with her annual income rising to $28,800 a year, an annual earnings increase of $9,600). However, she will face decreases in four out of her five monthly benefit streams, with each benefit reduction based on the same $800-increase in earnings (a problem known among welfare researchers as the “cumulative stacked effect”). The single mother will lose $231 in food stamps, $80 in childcare benefits, $216 in housing benefits, and $166 in EITC. Her total decrease in monthly benefits will reach $694 (which means her annual benefit total will drop by $8,328).4 Her implicit tax rate on her added monthly earnings of $800 is 87 percent—more than two times the highest explicit marginal tax rate proposed for the rich. …In addition, the single mother will be required to pay an added $185 a month in federal and state income taxes on her added earned monthly income of $800, which is an explicit tax rate of 23 percent. Adding the 87 percent implicit tax rate to the 23 percent explicit tax rate leads to an overall tax rate of 110 percent. Her raise has left her $79 per month poorer in lost wages and benefits—surely a strong disincentive for her to take the higher paying job.

Here’s a table showing those results.

If you want more evidence, check out Chart 7 from this column and Figure 8 from this column.

And the same problem exists in other nations as well.

P.S. Obamacare may have lured as many as 2 million people into full dependency.

P.P.S. I already mentioned how Biden’s per-child handouts could lure many more into full dependency, but “basic income” could be far worse.

Read Full Post »

The great Margaret Thatcher famously observed that the problem with socialism is that governments eventually “run out of other people’s money.”

But they can do a lot of damage before they reach that point.

We know from U.S. experience that Republicans can be very profligate. Well, the same problem exists with the Conservative Party on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

I wrote earlier this year that Boris Johnson was letting the burden of government spending increase much faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

And when politicians spend too much money, it’s almost inevitable that they will then try to grab more money from taxpayers.

And that’s exactly what the Prime Minister is proposing, as reported by Stephen Castle for the New York Times.

Mr. Johnson is widely expected to break his vow not to increase taxes when he announces a plan to bolster the nation’s social care services… Even before the announcement, the blistering dissent from members of his own Conservative Party has underscored the problems that lie ahead for a government that has ramped up borrowing during the pandemic yet faces huge pressure to spend… Britain’s creaking National Health Service, which was already strained before the pandemic, now has a massive backlog of routine treatment and operations that had to be postponed. On Monday the government announced a cash injection of £5.4 billion, or $7.4 billion, to help deal with that issue. …His proposals are likely to cap the amount any British citizen pays for social care over their lifetime. That would prevent many from having to sell their homes to pay for care, but would also mean investing more public money, mainly through raising taxes.

So what do the actual conservatives in the Conservative Party think about Johnson’s proposal for more taxes and more spending?

They are not happy.

Perhaps the biggest danger for Mr. Johnson is the hostility of fiscal conservatives on the right of his party, who object to any tax being increased, including one senior cabinet minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg. …Mr. Sunak is also anxious to reign in spending, a view that is popular with the right wing of the Conservative Party. “He believes there is a moral and political premium on not raising taxes, not raising spending and getting borrowing under control,” said Professor Bale, who added this was “partly because he knows that this where the beating heart of the Conservative parliamentary party lies.”

Here are some more details about teh fight inside the Conservative Party, as reported by Edward Malnick of the U.K.-based Telegraph.

Senior Conservatives were threatening open warfare over Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s planned tax increase… Ministers, government aides and backbenchers lined up to denounce a planned National Insurance rise which was privately described by senior figures as “idiotic”, with one Cabinet member declaring the proposal “morally, economically and politically wrong”. …Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister, said: “Of all the ways to break manifesto tax pledges to fund the NHS and social care, raising NIC must be the worst. In this time of crisis, we need a zero-based review of what the state does and how it is funded.” …Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, feared that if Mr Johnson pushed ahead with the move the Conservatives would end up presiding over “the biggest tax rises since Clement Attlee”. …Another Tory MP suggested the Chancellor was concerned about Britain becoming a continental-style economy with unsustainable public spending and state intervention.

So how do Johnson’s allies respond?

With the same language one might have expected from Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-core statist who used to lead the Labor Party.

A government source said: “The NHS needs more money. By the time of the next election there could be 13 million people on waiting lists if we don’t act.”

In other words, the more government fails, the more money it should get (which also could be a description of Joe Biden’s fiscal policy).

P.S. What I wrote earlier this year is worth repeating.

Because of my strong support for Brexit, I was very happy that Boris Johnson won a landslide victory in late 2019. And he then delivered an acceptable version of Brexit, so that worked out well. However, it definitely doesn’t look like he will fulfill my hopes of being a post-Brexit, 21st century version of Margaret Thatcher.

The bottom line is that I wanted an independent United Kingdom to become Singapore on the Thames. Instead, Johnson seems to want his country to be Paris on the Thames.

P.P.S. I never thought I would miss the fiscal policy of two moderate former Prime Ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May.

Read Full Post »

I periodically warn that the United States is on a path to become a European-style welfare state.

That sounds good to some people since it implies lots of goodies paid for by other people.

So I always explain that there’s a downside. The economic data clearly show that there’s been less growth in Europe and this has real-world consequences.

This is why it’s so depressing that Joe Biden has a radical agenda of higher tax rates and much bigger government.

He wants us to copy an approach that has produced inferior outcomes.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has been sounding the alarm.

In a recent column, Professor Josef Joffe contemplates the impact of more dependency on America’s economy.

America is the land of “predatory capitalism,” German chancellor Helmut Schmidt liked to say. …President Biden’s tax plans might soon make Europe look like a capitalist heaven by comparison. …The middle class will pay the bill. …Reversing course won’t be easy because gifts, once given, are hard to take back, whether in the U.S. or in Europe. …As government expands and hands out more goodies, it also tightens its grip on the economy. It shrinks the private sector, the engine of U.S. wealth creation. It is no accident that Europe has grown more slowly over the past 40 years as government spending, regulations and taxes have increased.

Prof. Joffe’s point about the durability of entitlements (“once given, are hard to take back”) is vitally important.

This is why it is so important to block Biden’s per-child handouts.

Dan Henninger made similarly important points a couple of months ago.

The club Mr. Biden is joining…is one the U.S. has stayed out of since World War II. That is the club known as the European welfare state. It is the government-directed system of lifetime paternalism built up by the nations of Western Europe after 1945. …Public welfare has never been America’s reason for being, notwithstanding our substantial spending on social support programs. Despite the entitlement creations of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, the U.S., unlike Europe, has remained a nation driven and led by capitalist initiative. For current-generation Democrats, that fact is anathema. …The March stimulus bill already had one foot inside the economic club of Europe’s door.

For what it’s worth, I’m not quite as positive about the United States as Henninger. Our welfare state is a significant burden, though he is right that it is smaller than the welfare states in Europe.

Let’s not quibble about that point, though, because Henninger has another observation that is spot on.

Biden’s agenda is a recipe for big tax increases on the middle class.

Europe became famous for its perpetual-motion tax machine, which suppressed the continent’s entrepreneurial instincts. Besides income taxes, Europe relies heavily on the collection of notoriously high value-added taxes…total tax revenue from all governments in the U.S. as a percentage of GDP is 24%, compared with an average of more than 40% in seven European nations… Those European tax levels will never fall. Their governments gotta have the money. Mr. Biden purports that his proposed $3 trillion in tax increases hit only corporations and “the wealthiest.” But if his entitlements become law, European levels of middle-class taxation—perhaps a VAT or carbon tax—are inevitable. Mr. Biden’s plans to increase Internal Revenue Service audits lay the groundwork for that.

Amen.

Honest folks on the left openly admit that this is true.

I’ll close with two final points.

First, it would be a mistake to copy Europe’s welfare states, but there are worse things that could happen. Those nations may lag the United States, but they are generally richer than other parts of the world.

But I’m not sure “better than Venezuela” is a persuasive selling point.

Second, because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs, we’re already on a path to become a European welfare state.

But I’m not sure “let’s drive faster over the cliff” is a persuasive selling point.

Read Full Post »

I’ve made the case for capitalism (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V) and the case against socialism (Part I, Part II, and Part III), while also noting that there’s a separate case to be made against redistribution and the welfare state.

This video hopefully ties together all that analysis.

If you don’t want to spend 10-plus minutes watching the video, I can sum everything up in just two sentences.

  1. Genuine socialism (government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls) is an utter failure and is almost nonexistent today (only in a few basket-case economies like Cuba and North Korea).
  2. The real threat to free enterprise and economic liberty is from redistributionism, the notion that politicians should play Santa Claus and give us a never-ending stream of cradle-to-grave goodies.

For purposes of today’s column, though, I want to focus on a small slice of the presentation (beginning about 2:00).

Here’s the slide from that portion of the video.

I make the all-important point that profits are laudable – but only if they are earned in the free market and not because of bailoutssubsidiesprotectionism, or a tilted playing field.

This is hardly a recent revelation.

I first wrote about this topic back in 2009.

And many other supporters of genuine economic liberty have been making this point for much longer.

Or more recently. In a new article for City Journal, Luigi Zingales emphasizes that being pro-market does not mean being pro-business.

The first time I visited the Grand Canyon many years ago, I was struck…by a sign that said, “Please don’t feed the wild animals.” Underneath was an explanation: you shouldn’t feed them because it’s not good for them. …We should post something of this kind on Capitol Hill as well—with the difference being that the sign would read, “Please don’t feed the businesses.” That’s not because we don’t like business. Quite the opposite: we love business so much that we don’t want to create a situation where business is so dependent on…a system of subsidies, that it is unable to compete and succeed… This is the…difference between being pro-market and being pro-business. If you are pro-business, you like subsidies for businesses; you want to make sure that they make the largest profits possible. If, on the other hand, you are pro-markets, you want to behave like the ranger in the Grand Canyon: …ensuring that markets remain competitive and…preventing businesses from becoming too dependent on a crony system to survive.

Amen.

Cronyism is bad economic policy because government is tilting the playing field and luring people and businesses into making inefficient choices.

But I also despise cronyism because some people mistakenly think it is a feature of free enterprise (particularly the people who incorrectly assume that being pro-market is the same as being pro-business).

The moral of the story is that we should have separation of business and state.

P.S. There’s one other point from Prof. Zingales’ article that deserves attention.

He gives us a definition of capitalism (oops, I mean free enterprise).

We use the term “free markets” so often that we sometimes forget what it actually means. If you look up “free markets” in the dictionary, you might see “an economy operating by free competition,” or better, “an economic market or system in which prices are based on competition among private businesses and not controlled by a government.”

For what it’s worth, I did the same thing for my presentation (which was to the New Economic School in the country of Georgia).

Here’s what I came up with.

By the way, the last bullet point is what economists mean when they say things are “complementary.”

In other words, capital is more valuable when combined with labor and labor is more valuable when combined with capital – as illustrated by this old British cartoon (and it’s the role of entrepreneurs to figure out newer and better ways of combining those two factors of production).

One takeaway from this is that Marx was wrong. Capital doesn’t exploit labor. Capital enriches labor (just as labor enriches capital).

Read Full Post »

Washington is filled with dishonest and self-serving analysis. Much of that shoddy output is driven by privileged groups seeking bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, or a tilted playing field.

But that’s not the only type of dishonest and self-serving you find in Washington.

Let’s take the example of President Biden’s proposal to gut welfare reform with per-child handouts.

The micro-economic problem with that policy is that it reduces incentives to work – as illustrated by this Wizard-of-Id parody or this cartoon about socialism.

The macro-economic problem with that policy is that it’s part of a radical expansion in the burden of government that will make the U.S. more like Europe.

For today’s topic, though, I want to call attention to a recent report by the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee. It relies on the sloppiest and most disingenuous analysis imaginable.

To recycle a term from 2015, let’s call it primitive Keynesianism.

Here’s the relevant excerpt.

The Treasury Department released information on how much money went to each state, which allows us to estimate the impact of the newly expanded CTC on local economies. Using an estimated multiplier of 1.25—or how much additional spending each $1 in CTC payments will generate, as people use their funds to buy goods and services that in turn generate income for other people and businesses—implies that the expanded CTC will generate nearly $19.3 billion in spending in local economies each month. This increased economic activity is a boon to local businesses, creating jobs in communities across the United States.

You’ll notice an astounding omission.

Nowhere in the JEC “report” is there any acknowledgement that politicians can’t “inject” money into local economies without first taxing or borrowing the money from the private sector.

Honest Keynesians acknowledge that there’s no magic money tree. They know the government can’t put money in our right pocket without first removing from our left pocket.

So they make arguments about things such as the “marginal propensity to consume.”

I disagree with that argument, but at least the folks making that case are being ethical.

The JEC report, by contrast, is utter garbage.

But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. They’re trying to sell very bad policy, so the staff have no choice but to produce nonsensical “research.”

P.S. Arthur Okun would be very disappointed.

Read Full Post »

I recently explained the evolution of taxation – and the unfortunate consequences of income taxation – to a seminar in the country of Georgia.

One of my main points was that income taxes are a relatively new source of revenue.

The first income tax was adopted in the United Kingdom in the mid-1800s and other nations followed over the next 50-plus years (the United States joined that unfortunate club in 1913).

And, as noted in the video, income tax enabled a massive expansion in the burden of government spending.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Martin Litwak explains how the U.S. and U.K. made the mistaken choice to impose income taxes.

…income tax is a rather recent “invention,”… Income Tax was first introduced by William Pitt in the United Kingdom in 1798, and it started to be charged in 1799. The aim was not to finance original expenses of the State but the Napoleonic Wars. …It was kept in force until the Battle of Waterloo. When the tax was annulled again, every document that referred to it was burnt, due to the sense of shame associated with having established and charged this tax. …Prime Minister Robert Peel reestablished it in 1841, not to finance a war but to cover the Government’s deficit. …the United States became independent from the United Kingdom in 1776…the country imposed the first income tax…to finance…the Civil War. …In 1872, the income tax was annulled, basically due to the pressure of taxpayers, who deemed it expropriatory… In 1894, the income tax was incorporated again, but the next year, …the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. …In 1909, the creation of this tax was proposed again… The 16th Amendment was introduced precisely to achieve this goal.

A sad column.

But it gets worse because politicians also then imposed payroll taxes.

Then they imposed value-added taxes.

Both of which helped to finance further expansions in the burden of government spending.

The bottom line is that it’s never a good idea to give politicians a new source of revenue.

Especially new taxes that are capable of generating a lot of revenue (or a medium amount or small amount of revenue).

P.S. Interestingly, many early advocates of income taxes in the U.K. and U.S. were not trying to finance a big welfare state, but rather wanted a new revenue source so they could lower or eliminate protectionist taxes on imports.

The moral of the story is to be careful of unintended consequences.

P.P.S. If you enjoyed watching a video about the history of the income tax, here’s a (much longer) history of economic policy in the 20th century.

Read Full Post »

Joe Biden wants to dramatically expand the welfare state (more than $5 trillion of new spending over the next 10 years).

In this discussion with Ross Kaminsky of KHOW in Denver, I warn that the President’s proposal for per-child handouts is an especially bad idea.

In part, my opposition to per-child handouts is motivated by a desire to protect the welfare reform law enacted in the 1990s.

As I noted in the interview, that reform reduced dependency and it reduced poverty. And Biden’s plan, for all intents and purposes, will repeal that law since it will be possible to get big chunks of money while not working, simply by having kids.

But since I’m a public finance economist, I’m also motivated by opposition to a massive new entitlement program.

At the risk of understatement, we don’t need to spend another $1.1 trillion when we can’t even afford all the programs that already are burdening taxpayers.

Others share my concern about the impact of Biden’s plan.

Matt Weidinger dissects per-child handouts in an article for National Review.

This year, parents don’t need to have paid taxes at all to collect an annual allowance of up to $3,600 per child. …According to the New York Times, “more than 93 percent of children — 69 million” will benefit from the new federal giveaway. …No work is expected from parents collecting them. That’s reminiscent of welfare programs before bipartisan 1996 reforms that required parents to work or attend training in order to receive government checks. In fact, the biggest beneficiaries of the new child allowance will be parents who earn less than $2,500 per year — including those who don’t work or pay taxes at all. …As explained in a 2019 report proposing child allowances in the U.S., the idea comes “from other countries.” …American policy-makers could merely be following suit. But it seems more likely that they’re just searching for a palatable way to package their current explosion of new spending, a spin on a return to the failed policies of the past: bigger benefits, for more people, funded by others’ tax dollars. After all, calling such payments “welfare” just wouldn’t do, would it?

David Henderson of the Hoover Institution also explains why Biden’s scheme is misguided.

Child allowances are a bad idea. It’s wrong to forcibly take money from some and give to others simply because they have children. Moreover, child allowances would create increased dependence, are not targeted at the needy, could reduce the work effort of lower-income women, and would add to the already huge federal budget… Scott Winship, the director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute…worries that child allowances will undercut the successful welfare reform of the mid-1990s and thereby cause a substantial number of unmarried low-income mothers to stop working. …in the 1990s he thought welfare reform would increase child poverty and he now admits that he was wrong. He writes that in the United States, “Poverty among the children of single parents fell from 50 percent in the early 1980s to 15 percent today, with an especially sharp decline during the 1990s.” …the urgent need is to get federal spending under control. This means slowing the growth of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the three programs most responsible for the coming federal deficits. But it also means not adding major new programs.

By the way, Henderson’s column focuses on Mitt Romney’s plan, but his criticisms apply equally (actually, even more) to Biden’s proposal.

I’ll close with some encouraging polling data that was shared by G. Elliott Morris of the Economist.

Biden’s plan has only 29 percent support (versus 43 percent opposition).

I suspect that polling data would look even better if the pollsters had been honest and asked whether people favored expanded redistribution payments based on number of kids (“refundable” tax credits are simply spending that gets laundered through the tax code).

The bottom line is that the United States already has a big problem with government dependency. Per-child handouts will make a bad situation even worse.

P.S. Some advocates of the handouts say we need to copy Europe, but they never explain why “catching up” is a good idea when Europeans have much lower living standards.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2016, I created a 2×2 matrix to illustrate the difference between redistributionism (tax Person A and give to Person B) and state planning (politicians and bureaucrats trying to steer the economy, either through direct ownership or industrial policy).

The main point of that column was to show that countries should try to be in the top-left section, where there is less redistribution and less government control.

But I also wanted to help people understand that redistributionism and socialism are not the same thing.

For instance, Sweden (in the bottom-left box) is a capitalist economy with a big welfare state, whereas China (in the top-right box) doesn’t have much redistribution but government has substantial control over economic activity.

From an American perspective, the good news is that the U.S. currently is in the top-left box.

The bad news is that President Biden wants the country in the bottom-left box. So, if we want to be technically accurate, we should not accuse him of socialism.

Instead, as Antony Davies and James Harrigan explained in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, the real threat to the nation is “transferism.”

Socialism is state control of the means of production. …By contrast, capitalism is simply private ownership of the means of production. …more than four in ten Americans think “some form of socialism” is a good thing. But what is “some form of socialism?” A society is either socialist or it isn’t. The state either owns the means of production or it doesn’t. There is no middle ground. …It appears that what Americans really have in mind when they think about socialism is not an economic system but particular economic outcomes. …they are advocating what we should really call “transferism.” Transferism is a system in which one group of people forces a second group to pay for things that the people believe they, or some third group, should have. Transferism isn’t about controlling the means of production. It is about the forced redistribution of what’s produced.

Davies and Harrigan are correct.

Moreover, they deserve credit for predicting the future since they wrote the column in 2019!

Now let’s consider whether redistributionism (or transferism) is a good idea.

I’ve previously explained that a big welfare state causes economic damage, even if a nation otherwise is very pro-capitalist.

Consider, for instance, the remarkable data showing how Swedish-Americans and Danish-Americans generate much more prosperity than Swedes and Danes who still live in Scandinavia.

Or consider the income data showing how average Americans enjoy much higher living standards than their European counterparts (either in Nordic nations or elsewhere).

What’s worrisome is that Biden wants a much bigger welfare state and he doesn’t seem to understand that European-sized government means anemic European-style economic performance.

This is the message that Bret Stephens shared in one of his recent columns for the New York Times.

He starts by describing Biden’s agenda.

President Biden charts a course toward the largest expansion of government since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. After signing a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill in March and proposing a $1.5 trillion discretionary budget in April (a 16 percent increase from this year, on top of what’s likely to be at least $3 trillion in mandatory spending on programs like Medicare and Medicaid), the president wants $2.3 trillion more for infrastructure and $1.8 trillion for new social programs. That’s $7.5 trillion in discretionary spending. To put the number in perspective, we spent $4.1 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars over nearly four years to wage and win the Second World War. What will America get for the money?

He then points out the potential consequences.

…before the U.S. takes this leap into a full-blown American social-welfare state, moderates in Congress like Senator Joe Manchin or Representative Jim Costa ought to ask: What’s the catch? …The real catch is that massive government spending has hidden costs that are difficult to capture in numbers alone. Take another look at Europe. Why does R&D spending in the European Union persistently lag that in the U.S. …Why does Europe’s tech start-up scene…so notably lag its competitors…? Perhaps…social safety nets typically come at the expense of risk-taking and economic dynamism. And why is France, which, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, spends more on social welfare than any other nation in the developed world, such an unhappy place, with chronically high unemployment, endless labor unrest, a decades-old brain drain, rising political extremism, a wealth tax that failed and a medical system that was on the brink of collapse long before Covid struck? …Beyond the gargantuan cost, Congress should think very hard about the real catch: transforming America into a kinder, gentler place of permanent decline.

Amen.

Biden’s agenda inevitably will erode societal capital, leading to less work (because of lavish freebies such as per-child handouts) and lower levels of entrepreneurship (because of tax penalties on investment and risk-taking).

And this can lead to a tipping point, which is illustrated by my Theorem of Societal Collapse.

Read Full Post »

There are many things to dislike about President Biden’s budget plan to expand the burden of government.

There will be ample opportunity to write about these issues in the coming weeks. For today, however, let’s identify and highlight the biggest problem.

Simply stated, Biden wants to permanently and significantly increase the burden of government spending. Here’s a chart, based on data from Table S.1 of the President’s budget, augmented by data from Table 1.3 of the Budget’s Historical Tables.

The budget had reached $4 trillion before the pandemic. It then skyrocketed for coronavirus-related spending.

But now that the emergency is receding, Biden is not going to let the burden of government fall back to prior levels. Instead, he’s proposing a $6 trillion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

And that’s just the starting point. He wants spending to then climb rapidly – at almost twice the rate of inflation – up to $8 trillion by 2031.

By the way, this horrifying data doesn’t tell the entire story.

Biden’s budget doesn’t include some of his new spending giveaways. Brian Riedl addressed this fiscal gimmickry in a column for today’s New York Post.

…this budget does not even include additional spending and debt proposals that are coming later. …They account only for the recently-enacted “stimulus,” a massive discretionary spending hike, and the trillions in (creatively-defined) “infrastructure” spending proposed by the President over the past two months. However, during last fall’s campaign, Biden also proposed trillions in new spending for health care, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, climate change, college aid, and other priorities. The White House has signaled that these new spending initiatives are still in the pipeline. Including these forthcoming proposals, the President would push spending and deficits far above any levels that have ever been sustained.

And don’t forget all this spending, both proposed and in the pipeline, is in addition to all the entitlement spending that is going to burden the economy over the next several decades.

Here’s one final point to underscore and emphasize the radical nature of Biden’s budget.

I’ve taken the previous chart and added a trendline showing what spending would be if Biden has simply followed the trajectory based on the actual spending levels of every President from Carter to Trump.

In other words, we’re looking at trillions of dollars of additional money being diverted from the productive sector of the economy and being put under the control of politicians and bureaucrats.

That does not bode well for American prosperity. Even the Congressional Budget Office recognizes this means lower living standards for our nation.

The bottom line is that if you adopt European-style fiscal policy, you get anemic European-style levels of income.

Read Full Post »

The United States has a big economic advantage over Europe in part because the burden of welfare spending is lower.

This means fewer people trapped in government dependency in America. And it means a smaller tax burden in America.

But some of our friends on the left think it is bad news that the United States isn’t more like Europe.

They want more redistribution in America and they may get their wish if Congress approves Biden’s so-called American Families Plan.

The Economist has an article about Biden’s radical proposal, which would, as they correctly note, “Europeanise the American welfare state.”

President Joe Biden is proposing an ambitious reweaving of the American safety-net, which the White House says will cost $1.8trn. The American Families Plan has bits of the European welfare state that have long been missing in the country—a child allowance, paid family leave, universal pre-school, subsidised child care and free community college—but contains no reference to work requirements. …So how did Democrats go from Clintonism—which implicitly conceded the Reaganite critique that too much governmental assistance is a very bad thing—to its present-day unconcern about (even relish for) deficit-financed expansions of the safety-net?

Here are some of the specific details from the story, including discussion of Biden’s plan for per-child handouts.

This would bring America more in line with the rest of the developed world: the average government spending on benefits such as child allowances, family leave and early education is 2.1% of GDP in the OECD club of mostly rich countries. In America, it is just 0.6%. …A generous child allowance is the main anti-poverty tool in most rich countries—and also one that America lacks. One such scheme was created this year as part of the covid-19 relief bill that the president signed in March. It will pay most families $3,000 per year per child ($3,600 for young children)… The president’s plan proposes to extend these payments until 2025. Some Democrats think they should simply be made permanent.

The Wall Street Journal opined about Biden’s plan last month.

It’s more accurate to call this the plan to make the middle class dependent on government from cradle to grave. The government will tell you sometime later, after you’re hooked to the state, how it will force you to pay for it. We’d call the price tag breathtaking, but by now what’s another $2 trillion? …But the cost, while staggering, isn’t the only or even the biggest problem. The destructive part is the way the plan seeks to insinuate government cash and the rules that go with it into all of the major decisions of family life. The goal is to expand the entitlement state to make Americans rely on government and the political class for everything they don’t already provide. …This is now about mainlining benefits to middle-class families so they become addicted to government—and to the Democratic Party that has become the promoting agent of government.

I agree with the WSJ. Biden wants to create more dependency, even if that means eviscerating Bill Clinton’s very successful welfare reform.

For my contribution to this discussion, I want to make two points about the practical implications of Biden’s plan to “Europeanise” the United States.

First, it is impossible to have a European-sized government without massive tax increases. And since there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government, that inevitably means low-income and middle-class taxpayers will have to be hit with much bigger fiscal burdens. Which is exactly what has happened in Europe (and lots of honest people on the left openly admit a bigger welfare state would require similar policies in the United States).

Second, it is impossible to have a European-sized government and still maintain a big economic advantage over Europe. Higher spending and higher taxes will combine to reduce work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. Simply stated, European fiscal policy will lead to European economic results, and that will be very bad news for ordinary Americans since living standards are 30 percent-40 percent lower on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s also worth noting that the United States ranks very high in societal capital, and that presumably will erode if more people are lured into government dependency.

P.S. Biden used to oppose a government-guaranteed income, correctly realizing it would undermine the work ethic.

P.P.S. The United States already faces a huge long-run challenge because of entitlement spending, so it’s remarkable – in a bad way – that Biden wants to step on the gas rather than hit the brakes.

Read Full Post »

I wrote two days ago about subsidized unemployment, followed later in the day by this interview.

This controversy raises a fundamental economic issue.

I explained in the interview that employers only hire people when they expect a new worker will generate at least enough revenue to cover the cost of employment.

There’s a similar calculation on the part of individuals, as shown by this satirical cartoon strip.

People decide to take jobs when they expect the additional after-tax income they earn will compensate them for the loss of leisure and/or the unpleasantness of working.

Which is why many people are now choosing not to work since the government has increased the subsidies for idleness (a bad policy that began under Trump).

The Wall Street Journal editorialized about this issue a couple of days ago.

White House economists say there’s no “measurable” evidence that the $300 federal unemployment bonus is discouraging unemployed people from seeking work. They were rebutted by Tuesday’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Jolts survey, which showed a record 8.1 million job openings in March. …But these jobs often pay less than what most workers could make on unemployment. That explains why the number of job openings in many industries increased more than the number of new hires in March. …The number of workers who quit their jobs also grew by 125,000. …some quitters may be leaving their jobs because they figure they can make more unemployed for the next six months after Democrats extended the bonus into September.

Dan Henninger also opined on the issue for the WSJ. Here’s some of what he wrote.

President Biden said, “People will come back to work if they’re paid a decent wage.” But what if he’s wrong? What if his $300 unemployment insurance bonus on top of the checks sent directly to millions of people (which began during the Trump presidency) turns out to be a big, long-term mistake? …Mr. Biden and the left expect these outlays effectively to raise the minimum wage by forcing employers to compete with Uncle Sam’s money. …Ideas have consequences. By making unemployment insurance competitive with market wage rates in a pandemic, the Biden Democrats may have done long-term damage to the American work ethic. …The welfare reforms of the 1990s were based on the realization that transfer payments undermined the work ethic. The Biden-Sanders Democrats are dropping that work requirement for recipients of cash payments.

Amen.

I made similar arguments about the erosion of the work ethic last year when discussing this issue.

And this concern applies to other forms of redistribution. Including, most notably, the foolish idea of big per-child handouts.

P.S. The WSJ editorial cited above mentioned the Labor Department’s JOLT data. Those numbers are also useful if you want proof that federal bureaucrats are overpaid, and you’ll also see that the same thing is true for state and local government employees.

Read Full Post »

In Part I of this series, I explained why it’s absurd to think illegal immigration can be stopped by sending foreign aid to less-developed countries, such as many of those in Central America.

Simply stated, government-to-government handouts have never been a successful strategy for turning poor nations into rich nations. Indeed, aid actually discourages countries from following the recipe that does deliver prosperity.

In today’s column, let’s address Milton Friedman’s famous dilemma about the incompatibility of open borders and welfare.

Like most libertarians, I want to solve the problem by getting rid of the welfare state.

Immigrants are a big net plus so long as they are coming to work and be productive.

Indeed, because of their entrepreneurial skills and work ethic, immigrants from many nations wind up earning more than native-born Americans.

That’s something to celebrate. The American Dream in action!

But will that story of success continue if the welfare state is expanded?

Two advocates of increased immigration are worried. First, Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal recently explained that Biden’s agenda is a recipe for immigrant dependency.

…it is a growing belief on the political left that people should be allowed to enter the U.S. on their terms rather than ours, and that it is our collective responsibility to take care of them if they can’t take care of themselves. Milton Friedman said that open immigration and large welfare states are incompatible, and today’s progressives in Congress and the White House are eager to test that proposition. …Another concern is the left’s determination to sever any connection between work and benefits, something all the more worrisome since it is occurring while destitute foreign nationals with little education are being lured here en masse. …Earlier this month, the Biden administration quietly announced that it would no longer enforce a policy that limited the admission of immigrants who were deemed likely to become overly dependent on government benefits. What could go wrong? …In countries like Italy and France, generous aid programs have attracted poor migrants who are more likely than natives to be heavy users of welfare and less likely to be working. It’s a mistake to think it can’t happen here.

In a column last year for Reason, Shikha Dalmia warned that welfare programs undermine support for immigration.

…economists Alberto Alesina, Armando Miano, and Stefanie Stantcheva…administered online questionnaires to 24,000 respondents in six countries: U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden. The explicit aim was to study attitudes toward legal, not illegal, immigration. …restrictionists have succeeded most spectacularly is in depicting immigrants as welfare queens. …In America, over 25 percent of respondents said the person with the  ..immigrant-sounding name would pay less in taxes than he collected in welfare… The study’s findings pose a particular dilemma for Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), who wants to combine grandiose welfare schemes like free health care, pre-K, and college for everyone with generous immigration policies, because the mere mention of immigration reduces support for such schemes. Respondents who were asked about immigration became less concerned about inequality and less supportive of soak-the-rich schemes. …as long as immigrants are seen as succeeding through their own grit, natives may have no real objection to them. What is most likely to sour the public on immigration are the grandiose universal freebies… Immigrants should be wary of Democrats bearing gifts.

Both Riley and Dalmia raise good points.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to provide a practical example.

In his so-called American Rescue Plan, Joe Biden included a huge giveaway program that will shower $3,000-$3,600 to non-rich households for every kid they have.

This is a one-year, one-time handout, but many Democrats (and some Republicans!) want to make these enormous per-child payments a permanent part of America’s welfare state.

If that happens, the incentive to move to the United States almost surely will skyrocket.

Here’s a map I made, showing the annual handout for two children in the United States and the average per-capita income in some nearby nations.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there will be a huge incentive to migrate to America – but not for the right reasons. And my little example doesn’t include the value of any of the dozens of other redistribution programs in Washington.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t have a welfare system that rewards dependency, whether for people in the country legally or illegally.

And if you like immigration in theory, you should be especially opposed to handouts that will undermine public support for newcomers in practice.

P.S. It’s much better to have immigration policies such as the ones proposed by former Congressman Jared Polis and current George Mason University Professor Tyler Cowen.

Read Full Post »

Here are four things to understand about poverty and dependency.

Now let’s add a fifth item.

  • The United States adopted welfare reform in the mid-1990s.

Today’s column examines whether this was a bad development or good development.

We’ll start with a harsh critic.

In his column for the New York Times, Charles Blow wants Democrats to repeal Clinton’s welfare reform.

Clinton’s record, particularly with respect to Black and brown Americans and the poor, was marked by catastrophic miscalculation. …the welfare reform bill, …Clinton promised would “end welfare as we know it.” One of its central provisions was block-grant assistance to the states. …the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out in 2020, the block grant to states “has been set at $16.5 billion each year since 1996; as a result, its real value has fallen by almost 40 percent due to inflation.” …With the passage of the “American Rescue Plan,” the Democrats, alone, took another major step away from the mistakes of the Clinton legacy by increasing aid to families with children and to workers.

Reading the column, it seems like blacks must have suffered immensely because of the 40 percent reduction in the block grant.

But now let’s consider whether welfare reform was a good thing.

According to the data, the answer is yes. This chart, based on the Census Bureau’s data (specifically Table B-5), shows that the poverty rate for African Americans has declined since welfare reform was enacted.

To be sure, one could argue that the post-welfare reform decline was simply a continuation of a positive trend. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s certainly no evidence that the 1996 legislation led to bad results.

Moreover, research from the Brookings Institution makes a persuasive case that welfare reform deserves credit for some of the post-1996 progress.

Why? Because it sent a message – both practically and rhetorically – that permanent dependence on Uncle Sam was a bad thing. As a result, more people entered the workforce and poverty dropped.

That seems like a result that should be celebrated.

Unfortunately, Biden’s so-called American Rescue Plan contains big per-child handouts that are not dependent on being in the workforce.

The only silver lining to that dark cloud is that the handouts are only for 2021.

But the pro-redistribution crowd already is clamoring to make that provision a permanent giveaway. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, they want to “restore welfare as we knew it.”

P.S. Based on what I’ve read in his columns, Charles Blow is a hard-core leftist on economic issues. But he’s semi-reasonable on gun rights, so that’s one point in his favor.

P.P.S. Welfare reform is just one example of the good policies that were enacted during the Clinton years.

P.P.P.S. We can learn lessons about welfare and dependency by looking at data from Europe and Canada.

Read Full Post »

Two days ago, I shared data showing that people in the big nations of Western Europe only have about 75 cents of income for every $1 that Americans earn.

That’s a remarkable gap, and it’s getting larger rather than smaller, even though theory says that shouldn’t happen.

But what’s even more shocking is that a poor person in the United States would be middle class in most European nations.

And a low-income person in America is better off than the average European.

When I see numbers like this (and lots of other data I have shared over the years, all of which tells the same story), I have two reactions.

  • First, I want to laugh at anyone who thinks Europeans have a better distribution of income.
  • Second, I want to scream at anyone who things we should copy the European economic policy.

But my laughing and screaming obviously has no effect because Washington politicians are poised to enact a giant expansion of the welfare state.

And there’s plenty of support for this risky concept from both Democrats and Republicans.

On the GOP side, Senator Mitt Romney has proposed a big tax increase to pay for a big increase in redistribution spending in the form of universal handouts for families with children, an idea that I criticized early last month.

And Oren Cass, a former campaign aide for Romney, has a slightly different plan to impose higher taxes to fund handouts for families with children. I recently critiqued that plan in an article co-authored with Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. Here’s some of what we wrote.

…the proposal for a Family Income Supplemental Credit (Fisc) from Oren Cass and Wells King is misguided, mostly because it would raise tax rates and expand the burden of government spending. …the Fisc would cost $200 billion annually. …$80 billion per year, would be financed with tax increases. …this fact alone should make the Fisc a non-starter as a matter of fiscal policy. …Income tax rates already are too high, and President Biden wants to raise them further. Self-styled conservatives should not be aiding and abetting the push for class-warfare taxation by adding to the collection of proposed tax-rate increases on workers, investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners. …it would be desirable for families to have more economic opportunity and financial security. However, it doesn’t follow that conservatives should support subsidizing child-bearing and -rearing. We do not think copying Europe and imposing more redistribution is the right approach. Americans enjoy far-higher living standards than people on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, thanks in part to our smaller fiscal burden.

As you might expect, folks on the left are very excited about expanding the welfare state.

Biden’s so-called stimulus plan also contains a big one-time handout to households with children (with proponents hoping the lure of free cash will lead those households to demand that Washington make such giveaways a permanent part of American life).

Scott Winship of the American Enterprise Institute pours cold water on all the above proposals. Except he focuses not on fiscal policy, but on the fact that these schemes will subsidize dependency and encourage out-of-wedlock births – thus undermining the very successful welfare reform of the 1990s.

A child allowance would send unconditional cash benefits to nearly all families on a per-child basis.Child allowances run a very real risk of encouraging more single parenthood and more no-worker families, both of which could worsen entrenched poverty in the long run—an overreliance on government transfers, poverty over longer stretches of childhood, intergenerational poverty, and geographically concentrated poverty. …Poverty among the children of single parents fell from 50 percent in the early 1980s to 15 percent today, with an especially sharp decline during the 1990s. This was a period in which policy reforms encouraged work, by imposing time limits and work requirements on receipt of cash welfare and expanding benefits to low-income workers. …We should strive to reduce child poverty further, but it matters how we do so. Reducing this year’s poverty while exacerbating entrenched poverty and reversing the progress we have made since welfare reform would be a hollow victory indeed. So much the worse if a child allowance leads to irresistible calls for a universal basic income, which would also increase nonwork among the childless.

Michael Barone is similarly perplexed that lawmakers are so intent on reversing the progress of welfare reform.

When public policies have produced disastrous results, and when alternative policies have resulted in immediate, seemingly miraculous improvement, why would anyone want to go back to the earlier policies? …births to unwed mothers and welfare dependency rose…from 1965 to 1975, violent crime and welfare dependency, both heavily concentrated among blacks, nearly tripled — tripled. For two more decades, crime and welfare dependency remained at the same high levels, sometimes zooming higher. …Reform, first by Thompson in Wisconsin and then by Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton in the 1996 welfare bill, required mothers to work. Social workers’ focus was changed from handing out more checks to helping moms get and hold jobs. The results: Welfare rolls plummeted; teen births plunged; kids raised by working moms did better in school and in life. Liberals have tried to stealthily roll back the reforms. They’ve been joined by some cultural conservatives, worried about population decline… These include Sen. Mitt Romney, who supports a child allowance that is fully refundable — which is to say that government will send a check to parents, married or unmarried… A version of this, limited to one year, has been inserted in the “COVID relief” bill of President Joe Biden’s administration. A single parent with two kids, working or not, could qualify for $7,200 a year plus $6,400 in food stamps. …Mickey Kaus…argues that…”(A) large subset of recipients will go from one worker to zero workers.” That means “millions of kids growing up in fatherless homes, where nobody goes into the labor force, where the mainstream world of employment is a foreign country.” Past experience says he’s right and that…the people most hurt will be black Americans.

So is there a real danger that per-child handouts will become law?

The obvious answer is yes since they are included in Biden’s faux stimulus.

But that’s just a one-year giveaway. It’s unclear whether households will get addicted to that free cash and thus demand that the handouts get extended (based on my Second Theorem of Government, I’m pessimistic).

Robert VerBruggen has some polling data on this topic.

Here’s how he characterized the results.

So, what does the average person think…? The 2019 American Family Survey, a poll covering 3,000 adults from the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, tested four different child tax credit proposals… The results give us a sense of how the public—and some key segments of it—see the issue. Interestingly, none of the ideas had majority support… Nearly half of Americans can support a credit sold as tax relief that’s either broad-based (CTC1) or targeted to the lower-income (CTC3), but an across-the-board handout to parents just for being parents (CTC4) can’t even garner one-third support. …the major takeaways are these: 1) The child tax credit, in general, is not as popular as one might think — even in questions that don’t mention the taxes needed to pay for it, it never manages a majority; and 2) despite some energy on the pro-family intellectual right for flat, universal child allowances (CTC4), Republicans and even independents among the general public are really not fond of the idea.

This data is semi-encouraging. I’m definitely glad people are suspicious of big per-child handouts. And I suspect opposition will grow when people learn about the European-style taxes that would be needed to finance such a huge giveaway.

But it doesn’t help the fight for sensible policy when some self-styled conservatives advocate for big expansions of the welfare state – especially when such ideas inevitably will erode societal capital.

P.S. As indicated by the above excerpt, Scott Winship’s article concludes with a warning that universal per-child handouts could be the camel’s nose under the tent for a “basic income,” which is the crazy notion that government should give everyone money. That’s an additional reason to reject the idea, as even Joe Biden once realized.

P.P.S. Some proponents use the term “child tax credit” to describe per-child handouts, but that’s disingenuous at best. A handout doesn’t magically become a tax cut just because the recipient happens to pay tax. Moreover, the handouts in these proposals generally are “refundable,” which is simply fiscal jargon for handouts that also go to people who don’t pay any tax.

P.P.P.S. The real-world evidence casts considerable doubt on the notion that per-child handouts will increase birthrates.

Read Full Post »

There are many compelling economic arguments against entitlement programs.

Since I’m a libertarian, I also have moral concerns about tax-and-transfer programs.

Today, though, let’s address the big problem of entitlements and demographics, especially with regards to social insurance programs that transfer money from young people to old people (most notably Social Security and Medicare).

But I’ll start by acknowledging that demographics doesn’t have to be a problem. When nations first created such programs, they generally had “population pyramids” featuring a few old people, lots of working-age people (i.e., taxpayers), and then an even greater number of children (future workers and taxpayers).

As illustrated by this image, entitlement programs can be sustainable with that type of demographic profile.

But there’s been a big shift in demographics in developed nations.

Simply stated, we’re living longer and having fewer kids. In some sense, population pyramids are becoming population cylinders.

And this creates major challenges for entitlement programs because instead of there being many workers supporting just a few retirees, you wind up with “old-age dependency ratios” that require very onerous tax burdens (or very high levels of government borrowing).

I’ve already written how this is a big problem for the United States.

Indeed, I periodically cite long-run forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office to warn about the worrisome fiscal implications.

And I’ve also noted that Japan is in serious trouble.

Today, let’s look at some recent data to show that Europe is another part of the world where this problem is acute.

The European Commission published its 2021 Ageing Report late last year and there are three visuals that deserve attention.

First, here’s a look at the European Union’s population cylinder (or maybe an upside-down pyramid).

And here’s a table that compares the number of old people with the working-age population in 2019, 2045, and 2070.

At the bottom of the table, I’ve circled in red the averages for the eurozone (nations using the single currency) and the entire European Union. From the perspective of fiscal policy, these are horrific numbers.

But there are numbers that are even worse.

Our final visual is a table showing the economic dependency ratio, which the European Commission defines as “… the ratio between the total inactive population and employment. It gives a measure of the average number of individuals that each employed person ‘supports’ economically.”

Once again, I’ve circled the averages at the bottom of the table.

The bottom line is that most European nations already have a stifling fiscal burden, yet it’s all but certain that there will be even higher taxes and more government spending in the near future.

Which means more economic stagnation for Europe (and those of us in America face that possibility as well).

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is a solution to both Europe’s woes and America’s woes. Simply stated, there needs to be genuine entitlement reform.

That means “pre-funding,” which is the jargon for mandatory private savings, presumably augmented by some form of safety net.

Singapore is probably the world’s leading example for mandatory savings, while AustraliaDenmarkChileSwitzerlandHong KongNetherlandsFaroe Islands, and Sweden are a few of the many other jurisdictions that have fully or partially shifted to systems based on real savings.

Read Full Post »

I’m a voracious consumer of publications that rank economic liberty and national competitiveness. Simply stated, these apples-to-apples rankings tell us which countries have policies that are friendly to growth (and thus the places that will enjoy rising living standards).

I’m also very interested in “societal capital,” which is the degree to which the people of a nation believe in values such as self reliance, work, individual initiative, and personal responsibility.

In some sense, societal capital may be more important for a nation’s long-run prosperity than how it scores in any particular index.

That’s because it’s probably just a matter of time before a country with low levels of societal capital winds up adopting bad policy.

That being said, other than occasional examples of cross-country polling data, I’ve never seen a good way of ranking nations based on societal capital.

But that’s now changed, thanks to a new report called the Global Index of Economic Mentality.

In an article for National Review, Professor Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University summarizes the key findings.

GIEM scores measure the public’s embrace of the idea of economic freedom. A high GIEM score indicates that citizens in a particular country support the idea that their government should not play a major role in directing or regulating economic activity or in redistributing income. Citizens of high-scoring countries typically back an institutional framework that prioritizes private initiative, free competition, and personal responsibility — in short, a system of free enterprise. …The GIEM study found that countries that embrace a free-market mentality have more efficient economic institutions and higher per capita GDP than those who support socialist, interventionist mentalities.

New Zealand is in first place and United States is in fourth place.

New Zealand comes out on top with the highest score on the inaugural Global Index of Economic Mentality, followed by the Czech Republic, Sweden, the United States, and Denmark. This year’s lowest scorer is Bosnia, preceded by Bangladesh, Myanmar, Montenegro, and Azerbaijan.

There’s some very bad news for Chile, which may explain why people in that nation just voted to potentially replace the constitution which has delivered unimaginable prosperity.

Rather surprisingly, Chile is the lowest GIEM scorer in Latin America, even a notch below Argentina, and 64th overall. These data suggest that while the Chicago Boys…accomplished innumerable free-market reforms — reforms that have led to a great improvement in prosperity and the second-highest GDP per capita of any country in South America — they have failed to convince the Chilean public of the benefits of the free-market system that has lifted them out of poverty.

And there’s bad news for the United States because young people have very worrisome views.

If we look at country-by-country demographics, there is not much difference between the economic mentality of those over 40 years old and under 40 years old for most countries. But there are notable exceptions. The countries with the most significant difference in economic mentality between the two age groups are the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. In these countries, the younger generations possess a significantly weaker attachment to free-market ideas than do older generations, with the U.S. as the most extreme case. It makes one wonder what brand of economics is being peddled in high schools and universities in the United States.

For what it’s worth, if only young people were counted, America would rank #14 rather than #4. Not horrible, but definitely a shift in the wrong direction.

Let’s close by looking at some data from a PowerPoint presentation about this new index.

First we have the methodology.

Second, here are the scores for the 74 nations.

Last but not least, here’s the U.S. score compared to the average score in other regions.

As you can see, Americans have very good attitudes about preferring markets and disliking redistribution, but we score quite poorly on the issue of personal responsibility.

P.S. I’m not surprised to see good scores for the Nordic nations, and it’s also good to see high scores for Georgia and Estonia, though I’m somewhat shocked that Switzerland is in the middle of the pack. But I’m not surprised to see poor scores for China and Italy.

Read Full Post »

Bernie Sanders was considered a hard-core leftist because his platform was based on higher taxes and higher spending.

Elizabeth Warren also was considered a hard-core leftist because she advocated a similar agenda of higher taxes and higher spending.

And Joe Biden, even though he is considered to be a moderate, is currently running on a platform of higher taxes and higher spending.

Want to know who else is climbing on the economically suicidal bandwagon of higher taxes and higher spending? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the pro-tax International Monetary Fund just published its World Economic Outlook and parts of it read like the Democratic Party’s platform.

Here are some of the ways the IMF wants to expand the burden of government spending.

Investments in health, education, and high-return infrastructure projects that also help move the economy to lower carbon dependence… Moreover, safeguarding critical social spending can ensure that the most vulnerable are protected while also supporting near-term activity, given that the outlays will go to groups with a higher propensity to spend their disposable income… Some fiscal resources…should be redeployed to public investment—including in renewable energy, improving the efficiency of power transmission, and retrofitting buildings to reduce their carbon footprint. …social spending should be expanded to protect the most vulnerable where gaps exist in the safety net. In those cases, authorities could enhance paid family and sick leave, expand eligibility for unemployment insurance, and strengthen health care benefit coverage…social spending measures…strengthening social assistance (for example, conditional cash transfers, food stamps and in-kind nutrition, medical payments for low-income households), expanding social insurance (relaxing eligibility criteria for unemployment insurance…), and investments in retraining and reskilling programs.

And here’s a partial list of the various class-warfare taxes that the IMF is promoting.

Although adopting new revenue measures during the crisis will be difficult, governments may need to consider raising progressive taxes on more affluent individuals and those relatively less affected by the crisis (including increasing tax rates on higher income brackets, high-end property, capital gains, and wealth) as well as changes to corporate taxation that ensure firms pay taxes commensurate with profitability. …Efforts to expand the tax base can include reducing corporate tax breaks, applying tighter caps on personal income tax deductions, instituting value-added taxes.

Oh, by the way, if nations have any rules that protect the interests of taxpayers, the IMF wants “temporary” suspensions.

Where fiscal rules may constrain action, their temporary suspension would be warranted

Needless to say, any time politicians have a chance to expand their power, temporary becomes permanent.

When I discuss IMF malfeasance in my speeches, I’m frequently asked why the bureaucrats propose policies that don’t work – especially when the organization’s supposed purpose is to promote growth and stability.

The answer is “public choice.” Top IMF officials are selected by politicians and are given very generous salaries, and they know that the best way to stay on the gravy train is to support policies that will please those politicians.

And because their lavish salaries are tax free, they have an extra incentive to curry favor with politicians.

P.S. I wish there was a reporter smart enough and brave enough to ask the head of the IMF to identify a single nation – at any point in history – that became rich by expanding the size and cost of government.

P.P.S. There are plenty of good economists who work for the IMF and they often write papers pointing out the economic benefits of lower taxes and smaller government (and spending caps as well!). But the senior people at the bureaucracy (the ones selected by politicians) make all the important decisions.

 

Read Full Post »

There are many reasons to be depressed about Italy.

Bad policy is part of the problem, of course, but this chart shows that the country also is facing a demographic crisis. The blue lines show that there are now more deaths than births.

The chart comes from a Bloomberg column by Flavia Rotondi and Giovanni Salzano, and they explain some of the adverse consequences of this demographic change.

Italy isn’t just in an economic slump, its population is also sagging, pushing the country into its biggest demographic crisis in more than a century. The number of people in the country fell for a fifth year in 2019, and deaths exceeded births by almost 212,000, the biggest gap since 1918. …Italy already has huge long-term economic challenges, and the population trends, if they continue, are going to make surmounting them even harder. Italy won’t have enough young workers, and funding a rapidly aging population will strain an already stretched fiscal situation. Pension costs now amount to almost 17% off the economy. …“With an aging population and a consistent decrease of workers who pay taxes, our retirement system may go haywire” said Pietro Reichlin, a professor of economics.

Politicians naturally will want to compensate for these changes by raising the tax burden.

But Italy already is at a breaking point because of punitive taxation. Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, Daniel Di Martino discusses that nation’s dirigiste system.

Italy’s problem, similar to many of its southern European neighbors, is an oppressively high tax burden, irresponsible welfare programs that encourage high measured unemployment and increase the debt, and high levels of regulation. …the share of average wages collected by the Italian government via income and social security taxes is 48 percent, among the highest in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In addition, Italy imposes a value-added tax of 22 percent on most goods and services, one of the highest in Europe. Plus, Italy’s corporate, capital gains, gift, and myriad other taxes are passed on to individuals and borne directly by workers. …At the same time, Italy’s complex regulations are a barrier to starting or continuing productive activities. A study by economist Raffaela Giordano of the Bank of Italy concluded that the main reason behind Italy’s underperformance was burdensome regulations and corrupt and inefficient government structure.

Adam O’Neal makes similar points about bad policy in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Even before the pandemic, Italy hadn’t recovered fully from the 2008-09 financial crisis. Unemployment hovered around 10% in 2019. Adjusting for inflation, the average Italian worker earned the same as he did 20 years ago. Italian banks were Europe’s weakest. …What ails Italy? …Italy’s greatest challenge is a gargantuan government that destroys wealth as efficiently as the private economy creates it. …In 2018 government revenue was 42% of GDP, nearly 8 points above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average. Yet profligate outlays—Rome spent 16.2% of GDP on public pensions in 2015—brought debt to about 135% of GDP last year.

The net effect of all this misguided policy is that Italy’s economy is moribund.

In his column for Bloomberg, Professor Tyler Cowen summarizes the problem.

One striking fact about Italy is that, over the last 20 years, growth in per capita income has been close to zero. …a zero-growth environment cannot be stable forever. …If the pie doesn’t grow, eventually it becomes harder to sustain productive activity… Aging is another reason economic growth is necessary. …many countries (including Italy) have expensive pension systems. Someone has to pay the bill, and without innovation and economic growth, taxes will have to rise. That in turn discourages work, pushing people into untaxed black-market activity, necessitating higher tax rates, and the vicious cycle starts again.

And when you combine bad demographics and bad policy, that not only means stagnation in the short run, it also could mean fiscal crisis in the long run.

Except “long run” may be just around the corner.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute warns that an Italian fiscal crisis will make the mess in Greece seem trivial by comparison.

…markets are displaying remarkable complacency toward a rapidly deteriorating Italian political and economic situation. They are doing so in a manner that is painfully reminiscent of how complacent they were in 2009 on the eve of the Greek sovereign debt crisis. This could have major consequences for global financial markets considering that the Italian economy…has around 10 times as much public debt as Greece had at the time of its crisis. …One has to hope that while markets might be turning a blind eye to Italy’s deteriorating economic and political fundamentals, global economic policymakers are not. As experience with the Greek sovereign debt crisis reaffirmed, crises often take a lot longer than one would have thought to occur, but when they do occur they do so at a very much faster rate than one would have expected.

Some people argue that a fiscal crisis can be avoided if the European Central Bank buys up Italy’s government debt.

That certainly can avert a panic, at least for a while, but this approach can cause a different set of problems.

Joseph Sternberg opines for the Wall Street Journal that the European Central Bank’s easy-money policy has backfired by giving politicians in Rome the leeway to postpone desperately needed reforms.

If the ECB had not stepped in as a buyer of government debt, Rome long since would have faced fiscal catastrophe. Only a miracle—or €365 billion in ECB purchases of Italian sovereign debt since 2015—can explain how in recent years a country whose debt has ballooned to 130% of gross domestic product paid nearly the same interest rate as Germany… Even after selling so many sovereign bonds to the central bank, Italy’s banks continue to be large holders of their government’s debt. Such bonds constitute around 10% of Italian bank assets, nearly three times the eurozone average. …Mr. Draghi hoped his interventions would give wayward governments such as in Rome breathing room to overhaul the supply side of their economies—deregulating markets, privatizing state assets, trimming welfare programs and the like. But Rome has mainly slid backward.

While intervention by the European Central Bank isn’t the solution to Italy’s problems (and may actually make problems worse), this is also a good opportunity to make the related point that the euro currency also shouldn’t be blamed for the nation’s stagnation.

I’m not a big fan of the European Union and the crowd in Brussels, but Italy’s challenges overwhelmingly are the fault of policies adopted by Italian politicians.

Indeed, if you look at the data from the most-recent edition of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, you can see monetary policy isn’t a problem. Instead, the nation’s big impediment to prosperity (highlighted in red) is terrible fiscal policy.

To put this data in perspective, Italy has the next-to-lowest-ranked economy in Western Europe, with only Greece having less economic liberty.

The numbers from the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom tell a very similar story.

If you peruse the data from the most-recent edition of that publication, you’ll see that Italy gets weak scores for its approach to labor issues, the judiciary, and taxes.

But it gets an utterly dismal score (highlighted in red) for government spending.

Sadly, there’s no political party in Italy that wants to solve the problem of excessive spending – even though I explained how it could be done while in Milan many years ago. And without spending restraint, that means it’s almost impossible to adopt pro-growth tax reform.

P.S. No wonder some people in Sardinia want to secede from Italy and instead become part of Switzerland.

P.P.S. Amazingly, a New York Times’ columnist actually argued that the United States should be more like Italy.

Read Full Post »

Before our depressing discussion today about the fiscal impact of entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, EITC, Food Stamps, welfare, and Obamacare, etc), here’s a video of how it all began.

I think this is a great introduction to the issue, particularly since you learn how “public choice” (i.e., politicians engaging in self-serving behavior) played a key role in the development of today’s welfare state.

But if you don’t have the time to watch a long video, here are four key things to understand.

  1. Entitlements (budget geeks sometimes use the term “mandatory spending”) are programs that automatically give people money if they meet certain requirements (such as reaching a certain age or having income below a certain level).
  2. Since these programs automatically give people money, they are not part of the annual appropriations process (the “discretionary spending” parts of the budget that are determined on a yearly basis).
  3. Some entitlement programs are “means tested” and designed to funnel money to low-income individuals. This type of spending is sometimes referred to as “unearned benefits.”
  4. Some entitlement programs are “social insurance” since people pay specific tax in exchange for specific benefits. This type of spending is sometimes referred to as “earned benefits” (though in many cases recipient receive much more than they paid).

By the way, there’s one additional thing to understand.

Indeed, it may be the most important thing to understand if you care about America’s fiscal and economic future.

5.  Entitlement programs are a slow-motion fiscal train wreck.

Let’s look at a new study authored by James Capretta of the America Enterprise Institute. He also has some sobering observations on the history of entitlement programs.

The growing expense of entitlement programs has occurred steadily for more than a half century and is reflected in the shifting distribution of federal spending activity. …by the early 1960s, two-thirds of all spending continued to require approval by the House and Senate appropriations committees each year, and less than a third was spent on entitlement programs. … By 2019, nearly two-thirds of all spending in the budget was for entitlement programs, and less than a third went to annually appropriated accounts.

If you prefer this information visually, here are a couple of pie charts from the study.

While there are dozens of entitlement programs, the big three are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The largest entitlement programs are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Together, they now make up nearly half of all federal spending. Their combined growth over the past half century is the primary source of intensifying fiscal pressure. …In 2019, combined federal spending on them was 9.8 percent of GDP, up from 3.7 percent in 1970. CBO expects them to cost 17.2 percent of GDP in 2050, which is almost equal to the average annual revenue collected by the federal government from 1970 to 2019.

And here’s how they’ve been consuming ever-larger shares of America’s economic output.

What’s driving this ever-increasing fiscal burden?

In part, it’s because we have more and more old people and they are living longer.

So what does all this mean?

Capretta points out that uncontrolled entitlement spending may lead to a debt crisis.

I don’t disagree, but I think that’s a secondary concern. The real problem is that government spending will become an ever-larger economic burden. And that will hinder growth whether it’s financed by borrowing or taxes.

Speaking of taxes, here’s the chart from the study that deserves our close attention. It shows the relationship between demographics, benefit generosity, and tax burdens.

Here’s how Capretta describes the relationship.

…for each of the stipulated replacement rates (25, 50, and 75 percent), the tax rate necessary to keep the program solvent rises with increases in the aged dependency ratio. This explains why social insurance taxes in many aging societies have been increased to high levels in recent decades.

I’ve taken the liberty of augmenting the chart to show how these factors interact (though the order of #1 and #2 doesn’t matter).

The bottom line is that the United States is on track to become a high-tax, European-style welfare state if fiscal policy is left on autopilot.

In other words, unless there’s genuine entitlement reform, future Americans will be condemned to lower living standards.

P.S. Here’s some more history. In a column for the American Institute for Economic Research, Richard Ebeling looked at British history to explain how the private sector played a role in social insurance before being displaced by government.

Throughout the 19th century, a primary means for the provision of what today we call the “social safety nets” was by the private sector outside of government. The British Friendly Societies were mutual assistance associations that emerged to provide death benefits for the wives and children of the breadwinner who had passed away. But they soon offered a wide array of other mutual insurance services, including health care coverage, retirement pension programs, unemployment insurance, savings clubs to purchase a family house, and a variety of others. …by the end of the 19th century around two-thirds to three-quarters of the entire British population was covered by one or more of their programs and insurances. The research also discovered that a large majority of the subscribers were in the lower income brackets of the time… What stands out is that these were all private and voluntary associations and exchanges, in which the government paid little or no role.

On a related note, here’s an excellent short video on the English “poor laws” from the 1800s.

P.P.S. In addition to the fiscal burden of entitlement programs, there’s also a major problem in the way these programs discourage work.

Read Full Post »

As indicated by one of my columns last week, I’m a big believer in federalism.

Indeed, I’ve even proposed that Washington shouldn’t operate any social programs. No food stamps. No Medicaid. No redistribution programs of any kind.

Such programs, to the extent they should exist, should be handled by state and local governments.

The welfare reform legislation under Bill Clinton is an example of how to move in the right direction. A top-down program from Washington was turned into a block grant, and then state and local governments got the freedom to choose policies that might actually help the poor become self-sufficient instead of being trapped in dependency.

Not pure libertarianism, of course, but still an example of progress. And we got good results.

Given this track record, I was very interested to see a column in today’s New York Times by Ezekial Emanuel and Rahm Emanuel on the topic of federal-state fiscal relations.

Medicaid and unemployment insurance…need permanent institutional reform and modernization. …the next stimulus package…should then be…a…federal-state Grand Bargain would solve festering problems in health care and unemployment assistance Years of political experience show that no matter how imperative and sensible, a policy’s chances of success are diminished unless it delivers political benefits. This bargain would create a victory for both parties.

This sounds intriguing. And potentially even desirable.

There’s no question, after all, that the current Medicaid system desperately needs reform. And the unemployment program also is a mess, luring people into joblessness.

So what exactly are the Emanuel brothers proposing? What is the “Grand Bargain” that offers benefits for both sides?

Sadly, it turns out that their bipartisan rhetoric is just an excuse for bigger government.

The bargain, which we call American Modernization Initiative…the federal government to assume the costs and administration of Medicaid and unemployment insurance, the states would have to agree to use freed up resources — a quarter of a trillion dollars per year — to invest in education and infrastructure. …The Grand Bargain is not only good policy, but good politics. …Governors would no longer be responsible for large programs… With the American Modernization Initiative, the constant, bitter battles over cutting state programs to fund growing Medicaid costs will disappear.

Yes, you read correctly. Their idea of a “bargain” is that the federal government agrees to spend more money so that that state governments will then have the ability to spend more money.

Even Republicans aren’t stupid enough to go along with that kind of deal.

So I’ll propose an alternative.

According to Chris Edwards, there are now nearly 1,400 programs involving some sort of link or overlap between the federal government and state governments.

The biggest of these programs is Medicaid, accounting for 56 percent of the overall spending.

So why not give the states a choice: They either take full responsibility for Medicaid – including the financing after some transition period. Or they take responsibility for the other 1,385 programs (probably more by now) programs – assuming, again, they are responsible for the financing after a transition period.

Regardless of their choice, the end result would be a system where there’s a reasonably significant shift toward federalism. And perhaps we would add a bit of clarity to the blurry line that currently sets the boundary between what’s Washington’s job and what’s the role of state governments.

And maybe, just maybe, there wouldn’t be as much wasteful leakage as we have now.

P.S. For what it’s worth, there’s strong academic evidence that decentralized governments produce better outcomes.

P.P.S. Federalism doesn’t only apply to income-redistribution programs. We also should eliminate any role for Washington in areas like education and transportation.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the data on the history of redistribution spending in developed nations.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2016, I shared an image that showed how the welfare state punishes both the poor and rich.

Rich people are hurt for the obvious reason. They get hit with the highest statutory tax rates, and also bear the brunt of the double taxation (the extra layers of tax on saving and investment resulting from capital gains taxes, double taxes on dividends, death taxes, etc).

But I also pointed out that the poor are penalized because they get trapped in dependency.

In large part, this is because they face bad incentives when they work and try to become self sufficient. Not only do they get hit by federal and state taxes, but they also can lose access to various redistribution programs. And the combination of those two factors can produce very high implicit marginal tax rates.

I cited an astounding example of this phenomenon in 2012, showing that a single mother in Pennsylvania would be better off earning $29,000 rather than $57,000. In other words, her implicit marginal tax rate on an extra $28,000 would be 100 percent (thus fulfilling FDR’s odious dream, albeit against a different set of victims).

How pervasive is this problem?

A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research gives us the answer. Authored by David Altig, Alan J. Auerbach, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Elias Ilin, and Victor Ye, it estimates implicit marginal tax rates for various segments of the population.

A plethora of federal and state tax and benefit policies jointly determine Americans’ incentives to work. …complex and often arcane provisions that condition tax payments and benefit receipts on labor income, asset income, total income, and the level of assets. …The myriad features of our fiscal system raise this paper’s central questions: What are the typical levels of marginal net tax rates facing Americans of different ages and resource levels, taking the entire federal and state fiscal system into account? …How much does one’s choice of the state in which to live impact one’s incentive to work? …We address these questions by running 2016 Survey-of-Consumer-Finances (SCF) data through The Fiscal Analyzer (TFA).

The five economists discovered that lower-income people are often hit by very high marginal tax rates on work (τL).

Our main findings, which focus on the fiscal consequences of SCF household heads earning $1,000 more in our base year – 2018, are striking. One in four low-wage workers face lifetime marginal net tax rates above 70 percent, effectively locking them into poverty. Over half face remaining lifetime marginal net tax rates above 45 percent. …marginal net lifetime tax rates are generally higher for those in the lowest quintile than for those in the middle three quintiles… The potential poverty trap arising under our fiscal system is highlighted by the 75th τL-percentile values for the bottom quintiles. Moving from the youngest to the oldest cohorts, these values are 67.4 percent, 75.9 percent, 69.3 percent, 76.5 percent, 74.4 percent, and 73.9 percent. Hence, one in four of our poorest households, regardless of age, make between two and three times as much for the government than they make for themselves in earning an extra $1,000.

This graph from the study shows how poor people can even face marginal tax rates of more than 100 percent (which I’ve highlighted in red). The vertical axis is the tax rate and the horizontal axis is household prosperity.

Subjecting poor people to very high implicit tax rates is horrible economic policy, just like it’s horrible policy to hit any other group of people with high marginal tax rates.

Simply stated, when people are punished for engaging in productive economic behavior, they respond by reducing their work, their saving, their investment, and their entrepreneurship.

Interestingly, some states are better (or less worse) than others.

One’s choice of state in which to live can dramatically affect marginal net tax rates. Across all cohorts, the typical bottom-quintile household can lower its remaining lifetime marginal net tax rate by 99.7 percentage points by switching states! …The typical household can raise its total remaining lifetime spending by 8.1 percent by moving from a high-tax to a low-tax state, holding its human wealth, housing expenses, and other characteristics fixed. …To illustrate how τL varies from state to state, we calculate the median τL for households in the 30-39 age cohort in the lowest resource quintile in each state. …Figure 11 shows the cross-state variation in median lifetime marginal tax rates. …median rates varies between a low of 38.8 percent in South Carolina and a high of 55.0 percent in Connecticut. Clearly, where people live can matter a lot for their incentives to work.

Here’s a map showing the marginal tax rate on people in the bottom 20 percent. The obvious takeaway is that you don’t want to be a poor person in Connecticut, Minnesota, or Illinois.

For what it’s worth, tax rates are still too high in the best states (South Carolina, Texas, Indiana, and South Dakota).

The bottom line is that the welfare state is bad news for both taxpayers and recipients. All of which may help to explain why the poverty rate stopped falling once the government declared a “War on Poverty.”

Read Full Post »

Assuming he was able to impose his policy agenda, I think Bernie Sanders – at best – would turn America into Greece. In more pessimistic moments, I fear he would turn the U.S. into Venezuela.

The Vermont Senator and his supporters say that’s wrong and that the real goal is to make America into a Nordic-style welfare state.

Since those nations mitigate the damage of their large public sectors with very pro-market policies on regulation, trade, and property rights, that wouldn’t be the worst outcome.

Though “Crazy Bernie” is still wrong to view Denmark and Sweden as role models. Why adopt the policies of nations that have less income, lower living standards, and slower growth?

Is Finland a better alternative?

The answer is yes, according to Ishaan Tharoor’s WorldView column in the Washington Post.

Sanders and some of his Democratic competitors are clear about what they want to change in the United States. They call for the building of a robust social democratic state, including programs such as universal healthcare, funded in large part by new taxation on the ultrarich and Wall Street. …Sanders is particularly fond of the “Nordic model” — the social plans that exist in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, which deploy higher taxation to provide quality public services and keep inequality at rates lower than the United States. …Across the Atlantic, at least one leading proponent of the Nordic model welcomed its embrace by U.S. politicians. “We feel that the Nordic Model is a success story,” said Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin… “I feel that the American Dream can be achieved best in the Nordic countries, where every child no matter their background or the background of their families can become anything, because we have a very good education system,” she said.

I prefer the analysis of a previous Prime Minister, though it’s hard to fault Ms. Marin for extolling the virtues of her nation.

But is Bernie Sanders really talking about turning America into Finland?

Tharoor correctly notes that the Nordic nation tell a very mixed story.

Sanders’s ascent in the past five years has spurred considerable debate over what lessons should be learned from the Nordic countries he celebrates. A cast of centrist and conservative critics note, first, that these Nordic countries are more capitalist than Sanders concedes, with generous pro-business policies and their own crop of billionaires; and, second, that the welfare states in Nordic countries are largely financed by extensive taxes on middle-class wages and consumption.

The last excerpt is key.

The big welfare states in Europe – and specifically in Nordic nations such as Finland – are financed with big burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

According to data from the Tax Foundation and OECD, middle-income Finnish taxpayers are forced to surrender about 15 percent more of their income to government.

Why such a big difference?

Because Finland has an onerous value-added tax, punitive payroll taxes, and their income tax imposes high rates on people with modest incomes.

In other words, it’s not the rich who are financing the welfare state. Yet Bernie Sanders never mentions that point.

I’ll close by simply noting that Finland (like other Nordic nations) is not a statist hellhole. As I wrote just two months ago, the nation has some very attractive policies.

Indeed, the country is almost as market-oriented as the United States according to Economic Freedom of the World (and actually ranked above America as recently as 2011).

Bernie Sanders, though, wants to copy the bad features of Finland.

He wants America to have a big welfare state, but doesn’t want Finland’s very strong rule of law or robust property rights for people in the private sector. Nor does he want Finland’s 20 percent corporate tax rate.

And I suspect he doesn’t realize that Finland just learned an important lesson about the downsides of giving people money for nothing.

Most important of all, I’m very confident he doesn’t understand why Americans of Finnish descent generate 47 percent more national income than Finns who stayed home.

P.S.S. Researchers at Finland’s central bank seem to agree with my concern about excessive government spending.

Read Full Post »

As part of my collection of honest leftists, I have a bunch of columns highlighting how some advocates of big government (including, to their credit, Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang) don’t hide from reality.

I’m unalterably opposed to their policies, but at least they openly admit that huge tax increases on ordinary people are needed in order to finance a European-style welfare state.

Now we have two more honest statists to add to our list.

In a column for the Washington Post, Eric Harris Bernstein and Ben Spielberg openly embrace huge tax increases on Americans with modest incomes.

They start by complaining that the tax burden is lower in the United States compared to other western nations.

A no-new-middle-class-taxes pledge…is seriously misguided. Middle-class taxes are a necessary and desirable part of a comprehensive, progressive policy framework… Democratic presidential candidates should make the case for middle-class taxes, not run from them. Here is a basic fact: The United States is a low-tax country. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, the United States ranked fourth-lowest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (a consortium of 36 economically developed countries) in terms of tax revenue collected as a percentage of the economy — behind nations like Germany, Israel, Latvia and Canada. The gap between U.S. and average OECD revenue has widened over time, from 1.3 percentage points of gross domestic product in 1965 to 10 percentage points more recently. That’s nearly $2 trillion per year in forgone revenue from lower tax rates.

Interestingly (though not surprisingly), they don’t acknowledge that Americans are far richer than people in other advanced nations.

So maybe, just maybe, there’s a relationship between tax policy and economic outcomes.

The authors then complain that Reagan triggered an era of lower taxes for the non-rich. Oh, the horror!

In 1979, the year before Ronald Reagan was elected president, the average household in the middle quintile of the income distribution paid 19.1 percent of its income in federal taxes, according to data from the Congressional Budget Office. By 2016, that rate had dropped 5.2 percentage points, more than a quarter, to 13.9 percent. The story is similar for the second and fourth quintiles, which saw their rates decline by 5.6 and 3.8 percentage points respectively over the same period.

Here’s a graphic that accompanied the column.

As you can see, readers are supposed to conclude that the United States is “below average” compared to other developed nations.

What would it mean if politicians reversed all the tax cuts that started under Reagan?

The most revealing factoid from the column is their calculation that middle-income families should be paying $3800 more to the IRS every year.

In 2016, middle-quintile families paid $3,800 less in taxes than they would have at 1979 rates… Low middle-class taxes in the United States stand in stark contrast to the approach in other developed countries, which raise more revenue from the middle class through some combination of taxes on goods and services, payroll taxes, and income taxes.

And don’t forget that the authors don’t just want to go back to 1979 tax rates.

They want America to become another France.

Somehow, I suspect America’s middle-class does not want to be pillaged like their European counterparts.

Amazingly, it gets even worse. The authors want more debt-financed spending and they even endorse the perpetual motion machine of “modern monetary theory.”

Of course, middle-class tax increases are not the only means of providing these public goods. Trillions of dollars can be raised through various taxes on the rich… And funding public investments with government debt, which modern monetary theory’s adherents recommend, is a far better approach than requiring every program to have a designated “payfor.” The government is uniquely positioned to borrow money, and we shouldn’t let unsubstantiated, theoretical concerns about debt levels prevent us from addressing the concrete and urgent needs of today.

I could end the column at this point and simply observe that it’s good to find honest folks on the left, even if they’re wildly wrong.

But the authors of the column unintentionally have given me an excuse to make a key point about taxes, growth, the economy, and the Laffer Curve.

Their graphic inserted above reveals that the overall tax burden in France consumes 46.1 percent of GDP in France, nearly twice as high as the United States.

But high tax rates don’t necessarily produce high tax revenues.

Indeed, I crunched data from the International Monetary Fund and found that per-capita revenues in France are only about 10 percent higher than they are in the United States.

I’m sure Art Laffer won’t be surprised by these results. Neither would Ibn Khaldun.

The bottom line is that most people in Europe are subject to much higher tax rates, which leads to lower living standards and weaker economies, which means there’s not even a lot of tax revenue to spend.

Would your family be willing to give up $10,000, $15,000, or $20,000 of income just so politicians could spend an extra $2,000 per household?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: