Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Welfare State’ Category

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 his 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 »

I’m currently in London for discussions about public policy, particularly the potential for the right kind of free-trade pact between the United States and United Kingdom.

I deliberately picked this week for my visit so I also could be here for the British election. As a big fan of Brexit, I’m very interested in seeing whether the U.K. ultimately will escape the slowly sinking ship otherwise known as the European Union.

But the election also is an interesting test case of whether people are willing to vote for socialism. The Brits actually made this mistake already, voting for Clement Attlee back in 1945. That led to decades of relative decline, culminating in a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Margaret Thatcher then was elected in 1979 to reverse Attlee’s mistakes and she did a remarkable job of restoring the British economy.

But do voters understand this history?

We’ll find out on Thursday because they’ll have the opportunity to vote for the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is the British version of Bernie Sanders.

And he doesn’t hide his radical vision for state control of economic life. Here’s how the Economist describes Corbyn’s agenda.

…the clear outlines of a Corbyn-led government emerged in the manifesto. Under Labour, Britain would have a larger, deeper state… Its frontiers would expand to cover everything from water supply to broadband to how much a landlord may charge a tenant. Where the state already rules, such as in education or health, the government would go deeper, with the introduction of free child-care for pre-schoolers and a “National Care Service” for the elderly. …The government would spend £75bn on building 100,000 council homes per year, paid for from a £150bn “transformation fund”, a pot of money for capital spending on public services. Rent increases would be capped at inflation. The most eye-catching proposal, a plan to nationalise BT’s broadband operations and then offer the service free of charge… Surviving policies from 2017 include a plan to nationalise utilities, alongside Royal Mail and the rail network, and a range of new rights for workers, from a higher minimum wage to restored collective-bargaining rights. All told, government spending would hit 45.1% of GDP, the highest ratio in the post-war era outside of a recession and more than in Germany… To pay for it all, very rich people and businesses would be clobbered. Corporation tax would rise to 26% (from 19% now), which Labour believes, somewhat optimistically, would raise another £24bn by 2024.

As reported by City A.M., the tax increases target a small slice of the population.

Jeremy Corbyn…is planning to introduce a new 45 per cent income tax rate for those earning more than £80,000 and 50 per cent on those with incomes of £125,000 or more. The IFS…estimates that would affect 1.6m people from the outset, rising to 1.9m people by 2023-24. Labour’s policy would add further burden to the country’s biggest tax contributors, with the top five per cent of income tax payers currently contributing half of all income tax revenues, up from 43 per cent just before the financial crisis.  But the IFS warned the amount this policy would raise was “highly uncertain”, with estimates ranging from a high of £6bn to an actual cost of around £1bn, if the policy resulted in a flight of capital from the UK. Lawyers have previously warned that high net worth individuals are poised to shift billions out of the country in the event of a Corbyn government.

Is that a smart idea?

We could debate the degree to which upper-income taxpayers will have less incentive to be productive.

But the biggest impact is probably that the geese with the golden eggs will simply fly away.

Even the left-leaning Guardian seems aware of this possibility.

The super-rich are preparing to immediately leave the UK if Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister, fearing they will lose billions of pounds if the Labour leader does “go after” the wealthy elite with new taxes, possible capital controls and a clampdown on private schools. Lawyers and accountants for the UK’s richest families said they had been deluged with calls from millionaire and billionaire clients asking for help and advice on moving countries, shifting their fortunes offshore and making early gifts to their children to avoid the Labour leader’s threat to tax all inheritances above £125,000. …Geoffrey Todd, a partner at the law firm Boodle Hatfield, said many of his clients had already put plans in place to transfer their wealth out of the country within minutes if Corbyn is elected. …“There will be plenty of people on the phone to their lawyers in the early hours of 13 December if Labour wins. Movements of capital to new owners and different locations are already prepared, and they are just awaiting final approval.” …On Thursday, Corbyn singled out five members of “the elite” that a Labour government would go after in order to rebalance the country. …The shadow Treasury minister Clive Lewis went further than the Labour leader, telling the BBC’s Newsnight programme: “Billionaires shouldn’t exist. It’s a travesty that there are people on this planet living on less than a dollar a day.

Some companies also are taking steps to protect shareholders.

National Grid (NG.) and SSE (SSE) are certainly not adopting a wait-and-see approach to the general election. Both companies have moved ownership of large parts of their UK operations overseas in a bid to soften the blow of potential nationalisation. With the Labour manifesto reiterating the party’s intention to bring Britain’s electricity and gas infrastructure back into public ownership, energy companies (and their shareholders) face the threat of their assets being transferred to the state at a price below market value.

The Corbyn agenda violates the laws of economics.

It also violates the laws of math. The Labour Party, for all intents and purposes, wants a big expansion of the welfare state financed by a tiny slice of the population.

That simply doesn’t work. The numbers don’t add up when Elizabeth Warren tries to do that in the United States. And an expert for the Institute for Fiscal Studies notes that it doesn’t work in the United Kingdom.

The bottom line is that Corbyn and his team are terrible.

That being said, Boris Johnson and the current crop of Tories are not exactly paragons of prudence and responsibility.

They’re proposing lots of additional spending. And, as City A.M. reports, Johnson also is being criticized for promising company-specific handouts and protectionist rules for public procurement.

In a press conference today, Johnson promised to expand Britain’s state aid regime once the UK leaves the EU. “We will back British businesses by introducing a new state aid regime which makes it faster and easier for the government to intervene to protect jobs when an industry is in trouble,” a briefing document said. Head of regulatory affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) Victoria Hewson said support for state aid was “veiled support for cronyism.” …A spokesperson for the Institute of Directors said: “It’s not clear how these proposals will fit with ambitions of a ‘Global Britain’. The Conservatives must be wary of opening a can of worms on state aid, it’s important to have consistent rules in place to resist the impulse of unwarranted protectionism.” Johnson also promised to introduce a buy British rule for public procurement. …IEA economics fellow Julian Jessop said: “A ‘Buy British’ policy is pure protectionism, and it comes with heavy costs.

Perhaps this is why John O’Connell of the Taxpayers Alliance has a rather pessimistic view about future tax policy. Here are excerpts of a column he wrote for CapX.

Theresa May’s government implemented a series of big state, high tax policies. Promises of no strings attached cash for the NHS; new regulations on net zero; tax cuts shelved and the creation of more quangos. After his surprise non-loss in the election, Corbyn shifted even further to the political left, doubling down on his nationalisation plans. All in all, the 2017 election result was terrible for people who believe in a small state. …A report from the Resolution Foundation found that government spending is rising once again, and likely to head back towards the heights of the 1970s over the coming years. The Conservatives’ recent spending review suggests state spending could be 41.3% of GDP by 2023, while Labour’s spending plans could take it to 43.3%. This compares to the 37.4% average throughout the noughties. Based on the manifestos, Labour are working towards a German-sized state, while the Tories’ plan looks more Dutch. Unsurprisingly we see this mirrored by the tax burden, which at 34.6% of GDP has already reached a fifty-year high. It is likely to increase further. …British taxpayers are presented with something of a Hobson’s choice: Boris Johnson will see taxes increase and spending shoot up, while Jeremy Corbyn has £1.2 trillion worth of unfunded spending rises just waiting to become unimaginable tax hikes for everyone. Whoever you vote for, you’ll get higher taxes, the question is just about how high.

Let’s close by looking at the big picture.

Here’s a chart showing the burden of government spending in the United Kingdom since 1900. I’ve augmented the chart to show the awful trend started by Attlee (in red) and then the positive impact of Thatcher (in green).

You can also see that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did a bad job early this century, followed by a surprisingly good performance by David Cameron.

Now it appears that British voters have to choose between a slow drift in the wrong direction under Boris Johnson or a rapid leap in the wrong direction under Jeremy Corbyn.

Normally I would be rather depressed by such a choice. I’m hoping, however, that Brexit (assuming it actually happens!) will cause Boris Johnson to make smart choices even if he is otherwise tempted to make bad choices.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, Corbyn has been an apologist for thugs and dictators.

Read Full Post »

I’ve written many columns about Sweden and Denmark over the past 10-plus years, and I’ve also written several times about Norway and Iceland.

But I’ve mostly neglected Finland, other than some analysis of the country’s experiment with “basic income” in 2017 and 2018.

Now, thanks to a very interesting column in the New York Times, it’s time to rectify that oversight. According to the authors, Anu Partanen and , Finland is a great place with lots of goodies provided by taxpayers.

Finland, of course, is one of those Nordic countries that we hear some Americans, including President Trump, describe as unsustainable and oppressive — “socialist nanny states.”…We’ve now been living in Finland for more than a year. The difference between our lives here and in the States has been tremendous… What we’ve experienced is an increase in personal freedom. …in Finland, we are automatically covered, no matter what, by taxpayer-funded universal health care… Our child attends a fabulous, highly professional and ethnically diverse public day-care center that amazes us with its enrichment activities and professionalism. The price? About $300 a month — the maximum for public day care, because in Finland day-care fees are subsidized for all families. …if we stay here, …College would also be tuition free. If we have another child, we will automatically get paid parental leave, funded largely through taxes, for nearly a year… Compared with our life in the United States, this is fantastic.

Interestingly, the authors are not clueless Bernie Sanders-style leftists.

They fully understand and appreciate that Finland (like all Nordic nations) is not a socialist country.

…surely, many in the United States will conclude, Finnish citizens and businesses must be paying a steep price in lost freedoms, opportunity and wealth. …In fact, a recent report by the chairman of market and investment strategy for J.P. Morgan Asset Management came to a surprising conclusion: The Nordic region is not only “just as business-friendly as the U.S.” but also better on key free-market indexes, including greater protection of private property, less impact on competition from government controls and more openness to trade and capital flows. …What to make of all this? For starters, politicians in the United States might want to think twice about calling the Nordics “socialist.” …in Finland, you don’t really see the kind of socialist movement…, especially around goals such as curtailing free markets and even nationalizing the means of production. The irony is that if you championed socialism like this in Finland, you’d get few takers. …a 2006 study by the Finnish researchers Markus Jantti, Juho Saari and Juhana Vartiainen demonstrates…throughout the 20th century Finland remained — and remains to this day — a country and an economy committed to markets, private businesses and capitalism.

This is a very accurate assessment. Finland is more market-oriented than the United States in many categories.

Moreover, the country is ranked #21 for economic freedom out of 162 nations in Economic Freedom of the World, with a score of 7.80. That’s just .05 behind Taiwan and .09 behind Chile.

That being said, the burden of taxes and spending is rather onerous.

…after World War II, …Finnish capitalists also realized that it would be in their own long-term interests to accept steep progressive tax hikes. …the nation’s commitment to providing generous and universal public services…buffered and absorbed the risks and dislocations caused by capitalist innovation. …Visit Finland today and it’s obvious that the much-heralded quality of life is taking place within a bustling economy of upscale shopping malls, fancy cars and internationally competitive private companies. …Yes, this requires capitalists and corporations to pay fairer wages and more taxes than their American counterparts currently do.

The column concludes by suggesting that American capitalists follow the same model.

Right now might be an opportune moment for American capitalists to pause and ask themselves what kind of long-term cost-benefit calculation makes the most sense.

So should the United States copy Finland, as the authors suggest?

People would get lots of taxpayer-financed freebies, but there would be a heavy price. Taxes consume nearly 50 percent of an average family’s income (even higher according to some measures).

That’s compared to about 30 percent in the United States.

And there’s a very Orwellian aspect of the Finnish tax system. As the New York Times reported last year, everyone in the country has the right to know how much income you earn.

Pamplona can boast of the running of the bulls, Rio de Janeiro has Carnival, but Helsinki is alone in observing “National Jealousy Day,” when every Finnish citizen’s taxable income is made public at 8 a.m. sharp. The annual Nov. 1 data dump is the starting gun for a countrywide game of who’s up and who’s down. …Finland is unusual, even among the Nordic states, in turning its release of personal tax data — to comply with government transparency laws — into a public ritual of comparison. …A large dosage of Thursday’s reporting concerned the income of minor celebrities… The country’s best-known porn star, Anssi “Mr. Lothar” Viskari, was reported to have earned 23,826 euros (about $27,000).

Given the onerous level of Finnish taxes, it’s probably safe to say that “Mr. Lothar” is getting screwed more than he’s…um….well, you get the point.

So what’s the bottom line? Should America be more like Finland? Is the country reasonably successful because of high taxes, or in spite of high taxes?

The U.S. should not mimic Finland, at least if the goal is higher living standards. Finland has some advantages over the United States (including better business taxation), but the United States has more overall economic liberty.

And that presumably helps to explain why, based on data from the Organization for economic Cooperation and Development, the average American enjoys 40 percent higher living standards than the average Finn.

But the most compelling piece of data, for those who prefer apples-to-apples comparison, is that Americans of Finnish descent produce 47 percent more than Finns in Finland.

Is Finland a relatively rich nation? Yes.

Is Finland a relatively free nation? Definitely.

Is Finland a good example of western civilization? Unquestionably.

The bottom line is that Finland seems like a great country (I’ve never visited). All I’m saying is that Americans would not be as prosperous if we had Finnish-style taxation and Finnish-style spending.

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

P.P.S. And Finland’s former Prime Minister understood the downside of an excessive public sector.

Read Full Post »

I give Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang credit for a bit of honesty. Both of them have proposals to significantly – indeed, dramatically – expand the burden of government spending, and they actually admit their plans will require big tax increases on lower-income and middle-class voters.

Their numbers are still wrong, but at least they recognize you can’t have French-sized government financed by just a tiny sliver of rich people.

This makes them far more honest than other candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

In the past, I’ve pointed out that there’s no nation in the world that finances a big welfare state without high tax burdens on ordinary people – generally steep value-added taxes, along with onerous payroll taxes and high income tax rates on middle-income earners (see, for instanced, this horrifying story from Spain).

And I’ve also periodically shared analysis from honest leftists who admit major tax hikes on the broader population will be inevitable if politicians in the U.S. create European-sized redistribution programs.

Today, we’re going to add to this collection of honest leftists.

There’s an explicitly pro-socialist magazine called Jacobin, in which Doug Henwood has a lengthy article explaining – from his statist perspective – that it’s necessary to have higher taxes on everybody.

We should be clear about what it will take to fund a decent welfare state: not just soaking the rich, but raising taxes across the board… I’m defining social democracy as a large and robust welfare state that socializes a lot of consumption through taxation and spending, compressing the income distribution, …insulating people from the risks of sickness and unemployment, and…it’s a lot bigger than Medicare for All and free college.

He compares the U.S. to other nations, especially the Nordic nations.

For those who want bigger government, America doesn’t spend nearly enough.

In 2017 (the vintage of most of these stats), the US government at all levels (aka general government in fiscal jargon) took in 34 percent of GDP in taxes and spent 38 percent. …Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — spend an average of 50 percent of GDP and take in 53 percent. None is very far from those averages, which are twelve and nineteen points above US levels, respectively. …The fourth graph is where American exceptionalism really comes in — the share of GDP spent on “social protection,” that is, classic welfare state programs. In the OECD’s words, these include “sickness and disability; old age (i.e. pensions); survivors; family and children; unemployment; housing; social exclusion n.e.c. [not elsewhere classified]; [and] R&D social protection.” The United States spends under 8 percent of GDP on these things, less than half the OECD average and a third what the Scandinavians spend.

Here’s a chart from the article showing how the U.S. doesn’t keep pace.

And how do the northern Europeans finance their big welfare states?

Henwood is very honest about the implications. You can tax the rich, but the rest of us need to have our wallets lightened.

How do the Scandinavian states — and others that are more generous social spenders than the United States — finance that spending? Not…by borrowing. Countries with more generous welfare states than ours borrow far less. Instead, they tax. …On some things, like Social Security and personal and corporate income taxes, the United States isn’t an outlier. On others, we are. …At 5 percent of GDP, our taxes on goods and services — mostly value-added taxes (VATs) in other countries… — are less than a third the Scandinavian share of GDP (16 percent)… The difference between the United States and the Scandinavians is over 10 percent of GDP.

In other words, big government means a punitive value-added tax.

That means higher taxes on the poor, as well as the middle class.

But he argues that’s okay because government will take care of everybody.

Yes, VATs are regressive. They’re taxes on consumption that hit the poor harder than the rich because the further down the income scale you go, the larger a portion of your income you consume. But their regressivity is more than compensated for in the Scandinavian countries by spending, which not only takes from the rich and gives to the poor, but takes from the masses and gives it back… It’s a way of socializing consumption to some degree, of taking things out of competitive markets.

Here’s another chart from the article, this one showing that the United States ostensibly doesn’t collect enough taxes from consumption (“goods and services”).

Now let’s take a closer look at the budgetary numbers.

Henwood points out that the usual class-warfare taxes would only finance a portion of the statism wish list.

Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez published a widely cited paper arguing that the optimal top tax rate for soaking the rich is 73 percent — optimal in the sense of pulling in the most revenue. …Bernie Sanders’s freshly released wealth tax plan would raise $435 billion a year, according to its designers, Saez and his Berkeley colleague Gabriel Zucman… Combine those two and you get a revenue increase of $520–755 billion, or 2.4–3.5 percent of GDP. Scandinavian revenues are 19 percentage points higher as a share of GDP than the United States’. …these taxes, which are probably what lots of contemporary American leftists have in mind, come only an eighth to a fifth of the way toward closing the gap with the Scandinavians.

His conclusion is very frank and honest.

Some might find it impolitic of me to say all this, but you have to be honest with people, otherwise they’ll turn on you for selling a bill of goods. …if we want a seriously better society of the sort outlined in the Green New Deal, then it’s going to take a lot more — and it won’t “pay for itself.”

My conclusion is that Henwood has profoundly awful policy preferences (Europeans have much lower living standards, for instance), but doesn’t believe in make-believe budgeting.

P.S. The Democrat presidential candidates have embraced one big levy – the carbon tax – that would grab lots of money from lower-income and middle-class people. But they seem to have successful convinced themselves (and maybe voters) that it doesn’t lead to higher tax burdens (even though proponents of such levies, such as the International Monetary Fund, openly acknowledge that consumers will bear the cost).

Read Full Post »

When non-libertarian audiences ask my opinion about immigration, I generally point out that it is a very good sign that so many people want to come to the United States.

Almost everyone agrees with that statement, but that doesn’t put them in the pro-immigration camp. Instead, I find that many people have a “what’s in it for us” attitude.

  1. They like the underlying concept of programs such as the EB-5 visa that attract immigrants with money, and they are broadly sympathetic to immigrants with skills and education. At the risk of over-simplifying, they want immigrants who won’t rely on handouts and they like immigrants who presumably will increase the nation’s per-capita GDP (and there certainly is strong evidence that this happens).
  2. They’re skeptical of mass immigration by people with low incomes. This is mostly because they fear such migrants will impose higher costs on taxpayers, though Republican types also seem motivated by concerns about future voting patterns. The notable exception to this pattern is that business audiences are somewhat sympathetic to mass migration because they believe labor costs will fall.

When I deal with people in category #2, I sometimes ask them about Tyler Cowen’s idea of allowing limitless migration from nations with bigger welfare states. After all, I doubt people such as “Lazy Robert” will move from Denmark to the United States.

But what about poor people from poor nations? Would they like to migrate to rich nations to get handouts, rather than for economic opportunity?

Taxpayers in many nations are worried about that possibility and are not very welcoming to immigrants who will collect benefits.

Indeed, that’s motivated the Trump Administration to consider tightening rules for who gets in the country.

The Trump administration announced long-awaited “public charge” immigration regulations this week, and the furor immediately kicked up to derangement level. …But immigration regulation of this sort has been a part of our laws for more than a century…the 1882 act declared that “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge…shall not be permitted to land.” …The 1952 revisions to immigration law maintained the idea that the government may exclude “paupers, professional beggars, or vagrants” and those who are “are likely at any time to become public charges.” …In 1996, Congress strengthened the public charge provisions…why would anyone call the Trump administration’s interpretation “un-American?” …the regulations—which do not apply to refugees, asylum-seekers, and various other groups—propose guidance to determine if an immigrant would be likely to use the welfare system for more than 12 months during a three-year period.

But it’s not just a controversy in the United States.

Taxpayers in the Netherlands, for instance, are becoming less tolerant of immigrants who want handouts rather than work.

Non-Western immigrants and their descendants also depend on welfare to a much greater extent than the native Dutch. They are half of all welfare recipients but only 11% of the total population. Among recent Somali refugees granted asylum, 80% are on welfare. Holland is truly a welfare state, and the Dutch are proud of it. …This type of open and yet highly regulated society can function only if it is carried by a disciplined and well-educated citizenry… That is what the fuss is about. To put it in abstract terms: Can a welfare state become an immigration state? You know the answer: A welfare state with open borders will one day run out of money.

I can’t imagine that stories like this make German taxpayers happy.

As early as 2016, German newspapers have been reporting on migrants with recognized refugee status having holidays in countries that they “fled,” such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria. Because Hartz IV, the welfare system that certain migrants granted refugee status receive, permits 21 days per year of “local absence,” those who have recognized refugee status and have no income or assets simply leave Germany for vacation and continue to receive money from German taxpayers.

There are also concerns that welfare spending hinders economic integration and independence in Sweden.

…only 20 percent of the Somali immigrants in Sweden have jobs, according to a report released on Monday by the government’s Commission… In an opinion article published in the Expressen newspaper, the author of the report, Benny Carlsson of Lund University, explained that Sweden would be well served to let community-based organizations do more…rather than relying on public agencies… Carlsson explained that…Sweden’s rigid labour market and labour protection laws also create “higher risks” for employees which amount to “higher thresholds” for Somali jobseekers. …Carlsson also cited Sweden’s social safety net which “lets people live at a decent level even if they don’t work, while the same can’t be said of the United States”.

Speaking of Sweden, stories of welfare dependency help to explain this report in the New York Times.

…four years after the influx, growing numbers of native-born Swedes have come to see the refugees as a drain on public finances. …Antipathy for immigrants now threatens to erode support for Sweden’s social welfare state. “People don’t want to pay taxes to support people who don’t work,” says Urban Pettersson, 62, a member of the local council here in Filipstad, a town set in lake country west of Stockholm. “Ninety percent of the refugees don’t contribute to society. These people are going to have a lifelong dependence on social welfare. This is a huge problem.” …Under the Nordic model, governments typically furnish health care, education and pensions to everyone. The state delivers subsidized housing and child care. When people lose jobs, they gain unemployment benefits… But the endurance of the Nordic model has long depended on two crucial elements — the public’s willingness to pay some of the highest taxes on earth, and the understanding that everyone is supposed to work. …Sweden’s sharp influx of immigrants — the largest of any European nation, as a share of the overall population — directly tests this proposition. …The unemployment rate was only 3.8 percent among the Swedish-born populace last year, but 15 percent among foreign-born… Roughly half of all jobless people in Sweden were foreign-born. …these sorts of numbers are cited as evidence that refugees have flocked here to enjoy lives of state-financed sloth. …The average refugee in Sweden receives about 74,000 Swedish kronor (about $7,800) more in government services than they pay into the system, Joakim Ruist, an economist at the University of Gothenburg, concluded in a report released last year and commissioned by the Ministry of Finance. Over all, the cost of social programs for refugees runs about 1 percent of Sweden’s annual national economic output

But is it true that migrants are looking for handouts? Are the afore-cited stories just random anecdotes, or do they suggest some countries are “welfare magnets”?

I’ve already shared some evidence that welfare recipients inside the United States gravitate to places that provide bigger benefits.

And this seems to be the case for migrants that cross national borders. Here are some findings from some new academic research showing that the generosity of Denmark’s welfare state has a significant impact on migration choices.

We study the effects of welfare generosity on international migration using a series of large changes in welfare benefits for immigrants in Denmark. The first change, implemented in 2002,lowered benefits for immigrants from outside the EU by about 50%, with no changes for natives or immigrants from inside the EU. The policy was later repealed and re-introduced. The differential treatment of immigrants from inside and outside the EU, and of different types of non-EU immigrants, allows for a quasi-experimental research design. We find sizeable effects:the benefit reduction reduced the net flow of immigrants by about 5,000 people per year, or 3.7percent of the stock of treated immigrants, and the subsequent repeal of the policy reversed the effect almost exactly. Our study provides some of the first causal evidence on the widely debated “welfare magnet” hypothesis. …our evidence implies that, conditional on moving, the generosity of the welfare system is important for destination choices.

Here’s the relevant graph from the study, based on two different ways of slicing the data.

As you can see from the red lines, migration fell when benefits were reduced, then immediately jumped when benefits were increased, and then immediately fell again when they were again lowered.

For what it’s worth, scholars believe that support for the welfare state in Europe is declining for these reasons. Taxpayers are tolerant of subsidizing their long-time neighbors, but are much less sympathetic when giving away money to newcomers.

From my perspective, the solution is obvious. I generally like immigration and generally don’t like redistribution.

So why not reduce benefits, ideally for everyone, but just to migrants if that’s the only possible outcome. That way nations are more likely to attract people (especially from low-income societies) who are seeking economic opportunity.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-related humor, we have a video about Americans migrating to Peru and a story about American leftists escaping to Canada.

Read Full Post »

In a recent interview, I was asked whether all the new spending schemes proposed by Democratic candidates would lead (as has been the case in Europe) to enormous tax increases on the middle class.

The answer is yes, of course.

But most of the candidates are not honest on this issues (with the partial exception of Crazy Bernie). They’re promising – literally – trillions of dollars in added handouts, but their proposed tax increases only cover a tiny fraction of the cost.

Elizabeth Warren may be the most extreme example of this phenomenon.

She’s embraced every possible tax on higher-income taxpayers, including a sure-to-backfire wealth tax. But all of those tax increases wouldn’t come close to financing her spending agenda – even if one makes the heroic assumption that there’s no adverse economic impact and negative revenue feedback.

The Wall Street Journal opined on her absurd approach.

Tuesday’s Democratic debate…most important news was Senator Elizabeth Warren’s determined refusal to say if her plans would require taxes to increase on the middle class. …South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg…added, accurately, that “no plan has been laid out to explain how a multi-trillion-dollar hole in this Medicare for All plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in.” …Senator Klobuchar…said “at least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up. And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.” …this illuminates a problem with Ms. Warren’s agenda and her political character. On Medicare for All, everyone agrees that the cost will be at least $32 trillion over 10 years. Ms. Warren could impose her wealth tax, her higher taxes on capital gains, her higher income taxes on the affluent, and she still wouldn’t come close to paying for Medicare for All. And that’s before her plans for new spending entitlements on child care, pre-K education, free college and so much more. The only way to pay for this is to raise taxes on the middle class, which is where the real money is. That’s how government health care is financed in Europe.

But it’s not just the pro-market crowd at the Wall Street Journal that is raising the issue.

Even writers at Vox find it difficult to rationalize Sen. Warren’s evasive math.

Bernie Sanders…acknowledged that…middle-class taxes would have to go up… It was a rare moment when someone running for the Democratic presidential nomination admitted that their spending ambitions would have to be paid for by taxes that touch not just the wealthiest Americans but taxpayers further down the bracket. …Trying to sell a big progessive agenda on the backs of the rich may be popular. But the admission that middle-class taxes may have to go up is an admission that there may not be enough rich people in America to pay for it all. …Warren…indicated last week that she supports…Medicare-for-All… Such a plan would overhaul the entirety of the US health care system with a single-payer system funded through general revenue and debt. Here the promise of a vast welfare state solely funded by new taxes on the rich runs aground.

It’s gotten to the point that some left-leaning economists are scrambling to help square Warren’s circle.

Here are some excerpts from a report in today’s Washington Post, including some of the horrifying tax increases that her advisers are contemplating.

Internal and external economic policy advisers are trying to help Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) design a way to finance a single-payer Medicare-for-all health-care system…her team faces a challenge in crafting a plan that would bring in large amounts of revenue while not scaring off voters with big middle-class tax increases. The proposal could cost more than $30 trillion over 10 years. Complicating matters, she has already committed all of the money she would raise from a new wealth tax, close to $3 trillion over 10 years, to several other ideas… Robert Pollin, a left-leaning economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has worked with the Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) teams, …suggests…a $600 billion annual “gross receipts” tax on businesses, …a 3.75 percent sales tax on “nonnecessities” that exempts low-income households, to raise an additional $200 billion; and a 0.38 percent tax on wealth above $1 million, which he says would raise the remaining $200 billion. Robert C. Hockett, a Cornell University professor who has also advised Warren and Sanders, said he has urged Warren’s team to propose financing Medicare-for-all in part with a “public premium” that would function similarly to a tax. …Warren’s team has also received recommendations to adopt a “progressive consumption tax”… This plan would raise trillions of dollars.

Wow, a smorgasbord of French-style tax ideas.

Let’s close with a chart from Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute.

As you can see, even if you combine all of the class-warfare taxes, they don’t come close to paying the $30 trillion price tag of Medicare for All.

The only good news, so to speak, is that Sen. Warren is a politician. She’s first and foremost interested in winning office and probably isn’t totally serious about actually creating all sorts of new entitlement schemes (just like I don’t particularly believe Republicans who put forth election-year plans for tax reform).

But that’s hardly a comforting observation since there would be “public choice” pressures to adopt at least some bad policy if she got to the White House.

Read Full Post »

Social Security is projected to consume an ever-larger share of America’s national income, mostly thanks to an aging population.

Indeed, demographic change is why the program is bankrupt, with an inflation-adjusted cash-flow deficit of more than $42 trillion.

Yet Senator Elizabeth Warren wants to make a bad situation even worse.

In a blatant effort to buy votes, she is proposing a radical expansion in the old-age entitlement program. Here’s how USA Today describes her proposal.

Warren’s strategy would make major changes to Social Security, boosting benefits for all and imposing new taxes on high-income earners to finance them. …Under the proposal, everyone would get a $200 increase in monthly payments from Social Security, including both retirement and disability benefits. …Certain groups would see even larger increases. …In order to cover these benefits and shore up Social Security’s future finances, Warren would impose two new taxes. First, a new payroll tax would apply to wages above $250,000, with employees paying 7.4% and employers matching with 7.4% of their own. This is above the 6.2% employee rate that applies to current wages up to $132,900 in 2019, …Second, individual filers making more than $250,000 or joint filers above $400,000 would owe a heightened net investment income tax at a rate of 14.8%. …The Warren proposal breaks new ground by largely disconnecting the benefits that Social Security pays from the wages on which the program collects taxes.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, John Cogan of the Hoover Institution explains why the proposal is so irresponsible.

It’s a strange campaign season, loaded with fantastical promises of government handouts for health care, college and even a guaranteed national income. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren ’s Social Security plan takes the cake. With trillion-dollar federal budget deficits and Social Security heading for bankruptcy, Ms. Warren proposes to give every current and future Social Security recipient an additional $2,400 a year. She plans to finance her proposal, which would cost more than $150 billion annually, with a 14.8% tax on high-income individuals. …the majority of Ms. Warren’s proposed Social Security bonanza would go to middle- and upper-income seniors. …The plan would cost taxpayers about $70,000 for each senior citizen lifted out of poverty.

Cogan also explains that Warren’s scheme upends FDR’s notion that Social Security should be an “earned benefit.”

The cornerstone of FDR’s Social Security program is its “earned right” principle, under which benefits are earned through payroll-tax contributions. …in a major break from one of FDR’s main Social Security principles, the plan provides no additional benefits in return for the new taxes. …Such a large revenue stream to fund unearned benefits, aptly called “gratuities” in FDR’s era, would put Social Security on a road to becoming a welfare program. …Ms. Warren’s proposal returns the country to an era when elected officials regularly used Social Security as a vote-buying scheme.

For all intents and purposes, Warren has put forth a more radical version of the plan introduced by Congressman John Larson, along with most of his colleagues in the House Democratic Caucus.

And that plan is plenty bad.

Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute wrote about the economic damage it would cause.

…the Social Security 2100 Act consists of more than 100% tax increases – because it not only raises payroll taxes to fund currently promised benefits, but increases benefits for all current and future retirees. …Social Security’s 12.4% payroll tax rate would rise to 14.8% while the $132,900 salary ceiling on which Social Security taxes apply would be phased out. Combined with federal income taxes, Medicare taxes and state income taxes, high-earning taxpayers could face marginal tax rates topping 60%. …Economists agree that tax increases reduce labor supply, the only disagreement being whether it’s by a little or a lot. Likewise, various research concludes that middle- and upper-income households factor Social Security into how much they’ll save for retirement on their own. If they expect higher Social Security benefits their personal saving will fall. Since higher labor supply and more saving are the most reliable routes to economic growth, the Social Security 2100 Act’s risk to the economy is obvious. …an economic model created by a team based at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School…projects GDP in 2049 would be 2.0% lower than a hypothetical baseline in which the government borrowed to fund full promised Social Security benefits. The logic is straightforward: when taxes go up people work less; when Social Security benefits go up, people save less. If people work less and save less, the economy grows more slowly.

And the Wall Street Journal opined about the adverse impact of the proposal.

Among the many tax increases Democrats are now pushing is the Social Security 2100 Act sponsored by John Larson of House Ways and Means. The plan would raise average benefits by 2% and ties cost-of-living raises to a highly generous and experimental measure of inflation for the elderly known as CPI-E. The payroll tax rate for Social Security would rise steadily over two decades to 14.8% from 12.4% for all workers, and Democrats would also apply the tax to income above $400,000. …The proposal would also further tilt government spending to the elderly, who in general are doing well. …Democrats are also sneaky in the way they lift the income cap on Social Security taxes. The Social Security tax currently applies only on income up to $132,900, an amount that rises each year with inflation. But the new payroll tax on income above $400,000 isn’t indexed to inflation, which means the tax would ensnare ever more taxpayers over time. …The new 14.8% Social Security payroll-tax rate would come on top of the 37% federal income-tax rate, plus 2.9% for Medicare today (split between employer and employee), plus the 0.9% ObamaCare surcharge on income above $200,000 and 3.8% surcharge on investment income. …As lifespans increase, the U.S. needs more working seniors contributing to the economy. Yet higher Social Security benefits can induce earlier retirement if people think they don’t have to save as much. Higher marginal tax rates on Social Security benefits and income also discourage healthy seniors from working.

Now imagine those bad results and add in the economic damage from a 14.8 percentage point increase in the tax burden on saving and investment, which is the main wrinkle that Senator Warren has added.

Last but not least, using Social Security as an excuse to push higher taxes is not a new strategy. Back in 2008 when he was in the Senate and running for the White House, Barack Obama proposed a Warren-style increase in the payroll tax.

Here’s a video I narrated that year, which discusses the adverse economic effect of that type of class-warfare tax hike.

By the way, Hillary Clinton supported a similar tax increase in 2016.

Though it’s worth noting that neither Obama nor Clinton were as radical as Warren since they didn’t propose to exacerbate the tax code’s bias against saving and investment.

And don’t forget she also wants higher capital gains taxes and a punitive wealth tax.

Her overall tax agenda is unquestionably going to be very bad news for job creation and American competitiveness.

The “rich” are the primary targets of her tax hikes, but the rest of us will suffer the collateral damage.

P.S. Instead of huge tax increases, personal retirement accounts are a far better way of addressing Social Security’s long-run problem. I’ve written favorably about the Australian system, the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system. Heck, I even like the system in the Faroe Islands.

Read Full Post »

When “basic income” became an issue a few years ago, I was instinctively opposed because I don’t want Uncle Sam sending big checks to everyone in the country.

But I admitted that there were a few reasonable arguments for the idea. Most notably, plans for a basic income usually assumed that these checks would be a substitute for the existing social welfare state.

Since that system has been bad news for both taxpayers and poor people, a swap sounds very tempting.

But I’ve repeatedly warned (over and over again) that any theoretical attributes don’t matter because politicians almost certainly would pull a bait-and-switch by adding a basic income on top of all current redistribution programs.

Andrew Yang is now proving my point. When asked about potential budgetary savings to accompany his proposal for basic income, the candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination asserted that the new handouts would be in addition to the existing welfare state.

At the risk of understatement, Yang has turned his proposal into an expensive joke.

America’s social welfare state already is unaffordable and he wants to make it a larger burden with a big new entitlement.

But fiscal policy isn’t the focus of today’s column.

Instead, I want Yang’s announcement to be a teachable moment about the “slippery slope.”

Simply stated, we should always be wary about the potential downsides of any possible reform. Especially if the wrong people are in charge.

Indeed, this wariness shall be enshrined as our “Fifth Theorem of Government.”

This Theorem is rather useful when contemplating certain issues.

And now we know it applies to discussions of basic income.

P.S. Here are the other four theorems.

The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.

The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.

The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.

The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.

P.P.S. All these theorems are actually just elements of “public choice,” which is the common-sense economic theory that people in the public sector largely are seeking to benefit themselves.

Read Full Post »

I periodically explain that a European-sized welfare state can only be financed by huge taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Simply stated, there aren’t enough rich people to prop up big government. Moreover, at the risk of mixing my animal metaphors, those golden geese also have a tendency to fly away if they’re being treated like fatted calves.

I have some additional evidence to share on this issue, thanks to a new report from the Tax Foundation. The research specifically looks at the tax burden on the average worker in developed nations

The tax burden on labor is referred to as a “tax wedge,” which simply refers to the difference between an employer’s cost of an employee and the employee’s net disposable income. …The OECD calculates the tax burden by adding together the income tax payment, employee-side payroll tax payment, and employer-side payroll tax payment of a worker earning the average wage in a country. …Although payroll taxes are typically split between workers and their employers, economists generally agree that both sides of the payroll tax ultimately fall on workers.

The bad news for workers (and the good news for politicians) is that average workers in the advanced world loses more than one-third of their income to government.

In some cases, such as the unfortunate Spanish household I wrote about back in February, the government steals two-thirds of a worker’s income.

So which country is best for workers and which is worst?

Here’s a look at a map showing the tax burden for selected European nations.

Suffice to say, it’s not good to be dark red.

But that map doesn’t provide a complete answer.

To really determine the best and worst countries, the Tax Foundation made an important correction to the OECD data by including the burden of the value-added tax. Here’s why it matters.

The tax burden on labor is broader than personal income taxes and payroll taxes. In many countries individuals also pay a value-added tax (VAT) on their consumption. Because a VAT diminishes the purchasing power of individual earnings, a more complete picture of the tax burden should include the VAT. Although the United States does not have a VAT, state sales taxes also work to diminish the purchasing power of earnings. Accounting for VAT rates and bases in OECD countries increased the tax burden on labor by 5 percentage-points on average in 2018.

And with that important fix, we can confidently state that the worst country for ordinary workers is Belgium, followed by Germany, Austria, France, and Italy.

The best country, assuming we’re limiting the conversation to rich countries, is Switzerland, followed by New Zealand, South Korea, Israel, and the United States.

By the way, this report just looks at the tax burden on average workers. We would also need estimates of the tax burden on things such as investment, business, and entrepreneurship to judge the overall merit (or lack thereof) of various tax regimes.

Let’s close by looking at the nations that have moved the most in the right direction and wrong direction this century.

Congratulations to Hungary, Israel, and Sweden.

I’m not surprised to see Mexico galloping in the wrong direction, though I’m disappointed that South Korea and Iceland are also deteriorating.

P.S. The bottom line is that global evidence confirms that ordinary people will be the ones paying the tab if Crazy Bernie and AOC succeed in expanding the burden of government spending in America. Though they’re not honest enough to admit it.

Read Full Post »

I’m a big fan of many of the economic reforms that have been implemented in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

All three of the Baltic nations rank highly according to Economic Freedom of the World. Estonia and Lithuania are tied for #13, and Latvia isn’t far behind at #23.

Rather impressive for nations that suffered decades of communist enslavement.

But this doesn’t mean I’m optimistic for the future of these countries.

Simply stated, they need a lot more reform to prepare themselves for demographic decline.

And demographic decline is a huge issue, in large part because young people are moving away. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

According to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, nine of the world’s countries most at risk of losing citizens over the next few decades are former East bloc nations. Porous borders and greater opportunity in the west have lured people away. …The trend is hitting especially hard in the Baltics. Latvia, with a current population of 1.96 million, has lost about 25 percent of its residents since throwing off Soviet control in 1991. The U.N. predicts that by 2050, it will have lost an additional 22 percent of its current population…and by 2100, 41 percent. In Estonia, with a population of 1.32 million, the U.N. foresees a 13 percent decline by 2050 and a 32 percent drop by 2100. And in Lithuania, the current population of 2.87 million is expected to drop by 17 percent by 2050. By 2100, it will have lost 34 percent. …Latvian demographer Mihails Hazans said that, as of 2014, one in three ethnic Latvians age 25 to 34 — and a quarter of all Latvians with higher education — lived abroad.

Part of the issue is also fertility.

Here’s a chart from the World Bank showing that all three Baltic nations are way below the replacement rate.

The combination of these two factors helps to explain this map.

As you can see, the Baltics don’t quite face the same challenges as Moldova.

But that’s the only silver lining in these grim numbers.

By the way, people should be free to emigrate.

And women should be free to choose how many children to have.

But when a country also has a welfare state and – over time – there are more and more old people and fewer and fewer young taxpayers, that’s a recipe for some sort of Greek-style fiscal crisis.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem.

The Baltic nations need to copy Hong Kong. Fertility rates are even lower there, but the jurisdiction doesn’t face a big long-run fiscal challenge since people mostly rely on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer welfare states.

P.S. One of the reasons I like the Baltic nations is that they cut spending (actual spending cuts, not fake DC-style reductions in planned increases) when they were hit by the global financial crisis last decade.

P.P.S. Even better, Paul Krugman wound up beclowning himself by trying to blame Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

Read Full Post »

I’ve repeatedly dealt with the argument over Denmark’s supposed socialism.

My core argument is that Denmark is very bad on fiscal policy, but very laissez-faire on other issues such as regulation. The net effect is that Danes have about the same amount of economic liberty as Americans.

The bottom line is that Denmark isn’t socialist. At least not if we use the technical definition. There’s plenty of bad policy, but no government ownership, no central planning, and no price controls.

Which is basically the message in this Prager University video by Otto Brøns-Petersen from the CEPOS think tank in Denmark.

This is a great video.

Basically everything you need to know about Danish economic policy.

To augment Otto’s video, let’s review a report from some of his CEPOS colleagues.

The entire report is worth reading, but I want to focus on one excerpt and some key visuals.

First, notice that Denmark and the United States have similar levels of economic freedom.

Since I’m a public finance economist, I was very interested in some observations in the report about fiscal policy.

This excerpt notes that Denmark has a much more onerous tax burden, and it points out that the value-added tax is the main reason for the gap.

…the tax burden (taxes to GDP) is the second-highest in the OECD and 70 percent higher than in the US (46 vs. 27 per cent of GDP). …The biggest difference between the Danish and the American tax systems is that consumption taxes are much higher in Denmark. VAT is 25 per cent in Denmark while the average sales tax is 6 per cent in the US. …Including the effect of consumption taxes, the top marginal tax rate on labor income is 67 per cent in Denmark. For low and middle-income workers, it is 55 per cent. This is significantly higher than in the USA. It’s important to include consumption taxes when you calculate the effective marginal tax rate. High consumption taxes means that you can buy fewer goods for one extra working hour.

My first takeaway is that this explains why blocking the VAT is absolutely necessary for advocates of limited government in the United States.

And the second takeaway is that big government means big burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers, which is what we seen in this next chart.

Last but not least, here are two charts comparing taxes and labor supply in the United States and Denmark.

In the tax chart, you can see that the two countries were very similar from the 1930s to the 1960s. But then the tax burden in Denmark got much worse (coinciding with the imposition of the VAT).

Now take a look at hours worked in both nations.

We were very similar back in 1970. But as the Danish tax burden grew, people responded by working less and less.

In other words, more evidence to support the core insight of supply-side economics. The more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

The Philoso-raptor surely would agree.

Read Full Post »

When I think about social welfare spending, I mostly worry about recipients getting trapped in dependency.

But I also feel sorry for taxpayers, who are bearing ever-higher costs to finance redistribution programs.

Today’s column won’t focus on those issues. Instead, we’re going to utilize new OECD data to compare the size of the welfare states in developed nations.

We’ll start with the big picture. Here it total redistribution spending, measured as a share of economic output, for selected countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Nobody will be surprised, I assume, to see that France, Finland, Belgium, Denmark, and Italy have the biggest welfare states.

The United States is in the middle of the pack. American taxpayers might be surprised to learn, though, that they finance a bigger welfare state than the ones that exist in Canada, Iceland, and the Netherlands.

The overall numbers are important, but it’s also educational to consider the various components.

And the largest chunk of social spending in most nations is for their old-age programs. The biggest burdens are found in Greece, Italy, France, Portugal, and Austria. The United States, once again, is in the middle of the pack.

By the way, keep in mind that there are many factors that determine why some nations spend more than others.

  • How generous are benefits? – This is often measured as the “replacement rate,” which compares retirement benefits to income during working years.
  • When can people retire? – Some countries allow people, or some classes of people, to get benefits while relatively young. Others are more stringent.
  • Does a country have an aging population? – Demographic changes already are beginning to have a large effect on the finances of some systems.
  • Is there a private savings system? – Nations such as Switzerland, Australia, Chile, and the Netherlands have significant private retirement savings.

Now let’s look at government spending on health.

Here’s the area where the United States is more extravagant than almost every other nation. Only France spends more money.

Actually, since per-capita GDP is significantly larger in the United States than in France, American taxpayers spend more on a per-person basis.

Some people will observe, with great justification, that the data for the United States may be a measure of the inefficiency of the American system rather than taxpayer generosity. This is a topic for another day.

Last but not least, let’s look at traditional welfare. In other words, cash assistance to the working-age population.

The fiscal burden of this spending is highest in Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Luxembourg. The United States, meanwhile, is comparatively frugal.

P.S. Here are a couple of caveats for number crunchers and policy wonks.

First, there are methodological challenges when comparing OECD nations. Eastern European nations tend to be significantly less prosperous than Western European nations, thanks to decades of communist enslavement. So looking at this data does not really allow for apples-to-apples comparisons. Moreover, there are a handful of developing nations that belong to the OECD, such as Mexico and Turkey, so comparison are effectively meaningless. And Chile is on the cusp of becoming a fully developed nation so it’s in its own category.

Second, as I briefly mentioned above, nations have different levels of per-capita GDP. If we look at the last chart, Austria and Spain spend a similar share of GDP on welfare, but since Austria is a richer nation, its taxpayers actually finance a lot more per-capita welfare spending. The same is true if you compare Canada and Estonia, Sweden and Slovenia, and Germany and Greece.

P.P.S. There was virtually no welfare state in OECD nations prior to the 1930s and very small welfare states until the 1960s. For what it’s worth, the huge reduction in poverty in those nations occurred before the welfare state.

Read Full Post »

If nothing else, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gives me a lot to write about…and to laugh about.

I recently pontificated about her crazy idea to impose a top tax rate of 70 percent, which would reverse the very successful experiment we had in the 1980s (and presumably have a reverse effect on revenue as well).

Today, let’s look at the spending side of the fiscal equation.

AOC, as she is known, wants a dramatic increase in the burden of federal spending for her so-called “green new deal.”

Let’s examine the implications.

We’ll start with a supporter. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has a giant carbon footprint compared to the average person, but that naturally doesn’t stop him from endorsing policies that would put AOC’s onerous burdens on the less fortunate.

Barack Obama picked up the theme and made a Green New Deal part of his 2008 platform, but the idea just never took off. So I’m excited that the new Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others have put forward their own takes on a Green New Deal… The goal is a ‘detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan’ to rapidly transition the country away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy, such as a solar, wind, and electric cars.” The Green New Deal that Ocasio-Cortez has laid out aspires to power the U.S. economy with 100 percent renewable energy within 12 years and calls for “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one,” “basic income programs” and “universal health care,” financed, at least in part, by higher taxes on the wealthy. …it is time for the green movement to think big and make big demands…a portion of every dollar raised by a carbon tax in a Green New Deal would be invested in two new community colleges and high-speed broadband in rural areas of every state.

Now let’s look at the implications of such policies.

But before looking at fiscal and economic considerations, let’s briefly detour to ideology.

Jonah Goldberg of National Review has some fun examining the philosophical forerunners of Ocasio-Cortez’s plan.

…the Green New Deal…is a triumph of recycling. Not of plastic bags or soda cans, but of ideas. Specifically, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the impulses behind it. To her credit, Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) is fairly honest about her ideological recycling. …the New Deal itself was largely about war mobilization — without war. Roosevelt campaigned for president promising to adapt Woodrow Wilson’s wartime industrial policies to fight the Great Depression. …Nearly the entire structure of the New Deal was copied from Wilson’s “war socialism.” The National Recovery Administration was modeled on the War Industries Board. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was an update of Wilson’s War Finance Corporation. …breaking discipline was a punishable offense, which is why a tailor, Jacob Maged, was sentenced to 30 days in jail for charging too little to press a suit. …American liberalism has been recycling the same basic idea: The country needs to be unified and organized as if we are at war… The attraction stems from what John Dewey called “the social possibilities of war” — the ability to reorganize and unify society according to the schemes of planners and experts.

Gee, another New Deal. What could possibly go wrong?

Now let’s contemplate the practical implications.

We’ll start with Warren Henry’s article in the Federalist.

…the darling of democratic socialism proposed eliminating carbon emissions within 12 years. …The “Frequently Asked Questions” section accompanying her draft resolution claims it could be funded in the “same ways that we paid for the 2008 bank bailout and extended quantitative easing programs, the same ways we paid for World War II and many other wars. The Federal Reserve can extend credit to power these projects and investments, new public banks can be created (as in WWII) to extend credit and a combination of various taxation tools (including taxes on carbon and other emissions and progressive wealth taxes) can be employed.” …Ocasio-Cortez now falls back on the comforting myth that everything is affordable by soaking the rich with higher income taxes. …Ocasio-Cortez half-concedes her plan is a fantasy… For an idea of how detached Ocasio-Cortez is from reality, consider that we get only 17 percent of our energy from renewables. …even if the golden geese of capitalism were to continue laying eggs in Ocasio-Cortez’s command-and-control economy, there will not be enough to make her statist omelet. Even if Ocasio-Cortez’s fever dream were technologically feasible, the burden of funding it would land on the middle class as well as the uber-wealthy. …This is not the first time Ocasio-Cortez has tried to pass off a fairy tale as a white paper. She recently claimed the $32 trillion cost of a Medicare-for-all plan could be funded by curbing fraud at the Pentagon. Not even PolitiFact could make that math work, given that our nation has not spent $32 trillion on defense since its founding.

In an article for FEE, Jarrett Stepman looks at the economics of AOC’s plan.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the avowed “democratic socialist” went with the predictable “tax the rich” formula in order to pay for a massive government program to combat climate change. …such a scheme would mean that her constituents in New York City would pay a max income tax rate of 82.6 percent… Perhaps New Yorkers deserve what they voted for, but does the country? …the tax hikes on the rich would be one of the least radical parts of the agenda. …moving the economy away from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable energy will come “at a cost of about $5.2 trillion over 20 years.” …this deal would instead rely on the ruthless bludgeoning of private industry and citizens through the levers of the state. …the plan calls for direct government intervention to be its “prime driver.” …The Green New Deal doesn’t just include environmentalist proposals… Among the liberal wish list items included, the Green New Deal contains a proposal for universal health care and a basic minimum income program to make up for all the jobs lost…this will all come with an immense cost. …How do Green New Deal proponents propose to pay for this extreme growth in government? …by massively hiking taxes and then borrowing and ultimately printing money. Then it would use public banks run by unaccountable bureaucrats to carry the whole thing out. …an American version of a Soviet-style five-year plan focused on command-and-control economic solutions that have proven to fail the world over. …The agony of a collapsing Venezuela…is a stark example of how badly this can end.

Milton Ezrati’s column in the City Journal further debunks AOC’s numbers.

…specific goals…include, among other things, expanding renewable-energy sources until they provide 100 percent of the nation’s power…upgrading every residence and industrial building in the U.S. for energy efficiency…eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions for industry and agriculture; funding “massive” investments… Ocasio-Cortez adds a long list of social objectives: providing training and education for the energy transition, including “job guarantees at a living wage for everyone who wants one”; …mitigating racial, regional, and gender-based inequalities; developing universal health-care and income-support programs… there were some 136 million housing units in the United States. Upgrading each unit to high standards of energy efficiency would cost, conservatively, at least $10,000 per home, adding up to a total cost of $1.3 trillion. Doing the same for industrial structures would easily exceed that amount. The single-payer health-care part would cost another $3 trillion or more, annually. Stabilizing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would add another $1 trillion to $2 trillion to the price tag—and all these still only account for three items on AOC’s list. …she would rely on debt, “printing money,” and government willingness to take an equity stake in some of the enterprises involved.

The bottom line is Ocasio-Cortez wants to dramatically expand the size and scope of government.

Some of her ideas would involve big increases in red tape, especially for the green parts of the Green New Deal (thus underscoring why it is rather naive for anyone to think the left would accept less regulation in exchange for a carbon tax).

But since I’m a fiscal policy person, I’m naturally concerned about what her grandiose plan would mean for the tax and spending burden.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has used public sources to estimate the price tag. Here’s the new spending that AOC and her fellow travelers want to impose on the economy.

And below we have a menu of potential tax increases.

There are two things to realize.

  • First, even if every single one of the tax increases is adopted, it doesn’t come close to paying for AOC’s wish list for new spending.
  • Second, the big revenue sources (payroll taxes, VAT, income tax) are largely taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

In other words, politicians talk big about screwing the rich, but the rest of us will be picking up the tab.

By the way, I can’t resist commenting on this second table. I realize Brian is merely following the tradition of budget scorekeepers at the JCT and CBO, but new revenues should not be categorized as “savings.” I would go with “grabbings” or “takings” instead.

Brian’s rhetorical sin doesn’t qualify him for the Bob Dole Award or the Charlie Brown Award, but surely there should be some consequences. Maybe we’ll create a Libertarian Re-education Camp and miscreants will be forced to listen to lectures from Dork 1, Dork 2, and Dork 3?

Read Full Post »

Bernie Sanders is yesterday’s news.

Yes, he’s still lovable ol’ Crazy Bernie, but he’s now being overshadowed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another out-of-the-closet socialist who somehow thinks America should be more like Greece or Venezuela.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute opines in National Review about AOC’s proposed tax hike on the rich. He starts with a very appropriate economic observation.

A 70 percent tax bracket would raise very little (if any) revenue, while damaging the economy and sending income and jobs overseas.

He then points out that we should look at both sides of the fiscal ledger.

And the spending side of the left’s ledger is very crowded and very heavy.

…when assessing the needed tax revenues, a green-energy initiative costing $7–$10 trillion over the decade should be examined in the context of $42 trillion in additional Democratic-socialist proposals that include single-payer health care ($32 trillion), a federal jobs guarantee ($6.8 trillion), student-loan forgiveness ($1.4 trillion), free public college ($800 billion), infrastructure ($1 trillion), family leave ($270 billion), and Social Security expansion ($188 billion). …These spending promises are so stratospheric as to be incomprehensible — except to the far Left, which clings to the myth that simply taxing millionaires can finance a level of socialism that would make the Swedes start a tea-party movement.

Here’s the key part of Brian’s column.

He points out that there’s no way to finance the agenda of Democratic Socialists with class-warfare taxes. Even if the AOC tax plan is dramatically expanded.

…a 100 percent tax rate on all income over $1 million…would raise 3.8 percent of GDP — not even enough to balance the current budget, much less finance a Green New Deal. And even that figure implausibly assumes that people continue working and investing. Slightly more realistically, doubling the top 35 percent and 37 percent tax brackets, to 70 percent and 74 percent for singles earning more than $200,000 and couples earning at least $400,000, would raise roughly 1.6 percent of GDP. That figure also ignores all revenues lost to the economic effects of 85 percent marginal tax rates (when including state and payroll taxes) as well as tax avoidance and evasion. …limiting the 70 percent tax bracket to incomes over $10 million…would raise only 0.25 percent of GDP — about $50 billion annually. …$50 billion is surely too high of an estimate, because the kind of people with incomes over $10 million also have teams of accountants and tax lawyers finding every conceivable tax loophole and overseas income shift.

Everything we know about the real-world impact of tax policy tells us that these soak-the-rich taxes won’t raise much – if any – revenue for the simple reason that upper-income taxpayers will alter the timing, level, and composition of their income.

But, as Brian noted, these taxes wouldn’t come close to financing the leftist wish list even if one makes absurd assumptions that behavior doesn’t change and the economy is unaffected.

So how do European nations finance their large welfare states?

Europe finances its generous welfare states through steep value-added taxes that hit the entire population. …Increasing federal spending by 21 percent of GDP to fund Democratic socialism — even after slashing defense — would require either a 55 percent payroll tax increase, or 115 percent value-added tax, according to CBO data. Acknowledging this brutal middle-class burden would immediately end any public flirtation with “free-lunch socialism.”

This is the most important takeaway from the column.

And it’s something that I’ve noted as well. On more than one occasion.

If you want European-type handouts, you better be prepared to cough up a lot of money.

  • Onerous value-added taxes.
  • Punitive payroll taxes.
  • And income taxes that impose high rates on modest incomes.

Simply stated, there is no way to finance a European-sized welfare state without pillaging middle-class and lower-income taxpayers.

Which helps to explain why European living standards are significantly below American levels.

By the way, there one final point from Brian’s column that is worth sharing.

He explains that high tax rates in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s didn’t generate much revenue. Even from the rich.

A common liberal retort is that the economy survived 91 percent income-tax rates under President Eisenhower and 70 percent tax rates through the 1970s. That does not mean those policies raised much revenue. Tax exclusions and high income thresholds shielded nearly everyone from these tax rates — to the degree that the richest 1 percent of earners paid lower effective income-tax rates in the 1950s than today. In 1960, only eight taxpayers paid the 91 percent rate. Overall, today’s 8.2 percent of GDP in federal income-tax revenues exceeds that of the 1950s (7.2 percent), 1960s (7.6 percent), and 1970s (7.9 percent). Those earlier decades were not a tax-the-rich utopia.

Amen.

I made similar points back in 2017.

The bottom line is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s economic agenda cannot be justified when looking at economic data, fiscal data, and historical data.

But we can say with great confidence that ordinary people ultimately will pay the heaviest price if her proposals get enacted since her class-warfare tax hikes will be a precursor for huge tax increases on the rest of us.

Read Full Post »

There was a book last decade by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, that asked why lower-income voters in the state didn’t vote for greater levels of redistribution.

The author claimed these voters were sidetracked by cultural issues, which may very well be part of the story. I like to think that these Kansans also were motivated by ethics and that they realized it would be wrong to use government coercion to take money from other people.

And maybe, unlike the folks at the IMF, they were not motivated by envy and they realized that high taxes and more redistribution would make them worse off over time because of the negative impact on overall prosperity.

Well, it appears that the folks in Kansas aren’t that different from people in India, Morocco, Nigeria, Mexico, and South Africa. At least that’s the takeaway from some new research that Christopher Hoy wrote about for the World Bank. Here’s the issue he investigated.

Social commentators and researchers struggle to explain why, despite growing inequality in many countries around the world,  there is often relatively limited support among poorer people for policies where they are set to benefit (such as increases in cash transfers or in the minimum wage). …Conventional theories of preferences for redistribution, such as the Meltzer-Richard Hypothesis, imply that if poor people were made aware they were relatively poorer than most other people in their country, they would become more supportive of redistribution. Yet there is little empirical evidence that evaluates this prediction. …empirical evidence is needed to understand how poorer people’s misperceptions of their relative position in the national income distribution effects their support for redistribution.

Here’s the methodology he used.

I conducted the first cross country survey experiment on preferences for redistribution in the developing world… The experiment involved over 16,000 respondents in five developing countries that make up almost 25% of the global population (India, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa and Morocco). …To test whether informing poor people of their relative position in the national income distribution makes them more supportive of redistribution, I randomly allocate half of the respondents in each country to be told which quintile their household belongs to in the national income distribution (based upon their reported household income and the number of household members). …After the treatment they were asked if they thought the gap between the rich and poor was too large and whether the government was responsible for closing this gap.

And here are some of the results.

People tend to think they are in the middle of the income distribution, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. …poor people who perceived themselves to be in the bottom two quintiles of the distribution were between 15 to 28 percentage points more likely to prefer lower levels of inequality than poor people who perceived themselves to be in the top two quintiles. …Surprisingly, telling poor people that they are poorer than they thought makes them less concerned about the gap between the rich and poor in their country…there was no effect from the treatment on these people’s support for the government to close the gap between the rich and poor.

Here’s a chart showing how people became less sympathetic to government-coerced redistribution after learning more about their own economic status.

The author speculates on possible reasons for these results.

A plausible channel that is causing this effect is people using their own living standard as a ‘benchmark’ for what they consider acceptable for others. …people…realise two points. Firstly, there are fewer people in their country with a living standard they considered to be relatively poor than they had thought. Secondly, what they had considered to be an ‘average’ living standard (their own standard of living) is actually relatively poor compared to other people in their country. I show how both of these points would lead people to respond by being less likely to be concerned about the gap between the rich and poor in their country. …there are opposing channels through which poorer people’s preferences for redistribution respond to information about their relative position. On the one hand, poorer people may be more supportive if they are set to benefit from redistribution. However, on the other hand they may be less supportive if they are less concerned about the absolute living standard of people who are relatively poor.

These are all plausible answers.

Though I have the same questions about this research as I did about Frank’s book. Do people in these five developing nations have any level of moral aversion to redistribution and/or do they understand (at least implicitly) that a tax-and-redistribute model is a recipe for national economic decline?

Perhaps a more practical way of looking at the issue is to ask whether lower-income people care most about economic growth or economic inequality.

Many of the professional left, including the ideologues at the IMF, are fixated on the latter and they’re willing to hurt the poor if the rich suffer even greater harm (in other words, Margaret Thatcher was right about their motives).

By contrast, I strongly suspect the average lower-income person is far more interested in more prosperity for their family and far less concerned about the prosperity of the rich family on the other side of town. They presumably are unaware of the powerful Chinese data on poverty reduction and inequality, but they instinctively understand that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Read Full Post »

When I argue with my statist friends about the proper size and scope of government, they accuse me of not wanting public services.

My typical response is to explain that I am a strong supporter of markets as the method to get high-quality roads, schools, and healthcare.

But I’m wondering whether this answer pays too much attention to the trees and doesn’t focus on the forest.

After all, the debate isn’t whether we should be Liberland or Venezuela. It’s whether government should be bigger or smaller compared to what we have now.

So the next time I tussle with my left-leaning buddies, I’m going to share this chart (based on data from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database) and ask them why we can’t be like the fast-growing, small-government nations of Asia.

To elaborate, not only do jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore enjoy impressive growth, they also get very high scores for infrastructure, education, and health outcomes.

In other words, these nations are role models for “public sector efficiency.”

What they don’t have, by contrast, are expensive welfare states that seem to be correlated with poor outcome for basic public services.

For all intents and purposes, I want to focus the debate on how much government is necessary to get the things people want, sort of like I did in Paris back in 2013.

I asked the audience whether they thought that their government, which consumes 57 percent of GDP, gives them better services than Germany’s government, which consumes 45 percent of GDP. They said no. I then asked if they got better government than citizens of Canada, where government consumes 41 percent of GDP. They said no. And I concluded by asking them whether they got better government than the people of Switzerland, where government is only 34 percent of economic output… Once again, they said no.

I assume (hope) Americans also would say no given these choices. And hopefully they would say yes when asked if we should be like Hong Kong and Singapore.

P.S. If I rotated the above chart clockwise by 90 degrees we’d have a pretty good approximation of the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve.

Read Full Post »

My favorite publication every year is Economic Freedom of the World.

It’s filled with data on fiscal policy, regulatory policy, trade policy, monetary policy, and quality of governance for 162 jurisdictions, and it provides an unbiased way of gauging the degree to which they allow economic liberty.

It also allows readers to slice and dice data, which is very helpful for doing analysis.

For instance, as illustrated by this 2×2 matrix, I claimed in 2016 that nations with small fiscal burdens aren’t necessarily pro-free market (meaning they would belong in the top-right quadrant) and countries with large fiscal burdens aren’t necessarily in favor of intervention and planning (so they would belong in the lower-left quadrant).

But that matrix was speculative.

Which is why I downloaded the EFW dataset. I then removed the fiscal policy variable and created new rankings so I could see which nations relied most on unfettered markets.

As you can see, Singapore barely edges out Hong Kong for first place in this “Laissez-Faire Index,” with New Zealand in third place. In other words, the top three nations in the overall EFW rankings stay the same, though Hong Kong and Singapore trade places (in the far-right column, I compare each nation’s rank to its EFW score for overall economic liberty).

The most dramatic results are for some of the welfare states in Northern and Western Europe. Denmark jumps 12 spots to #4 and the Netherlands soars 18 spots to #5. Other nations with big increases include Finland (up 14 spots to #8), Luxembourg (the world’s freest economy as recently as 1985, moves up 14 spots to #11), Sweden (up 30 spots to #13), Norway (up 11 spots to #14), and Belgium (up 32 spots to #20).

Looking at this list, it’s easy to understand why the combination of big government and free markets is sometimes called the “Nordic Model” (defined by Wikipedia as “a comprehensive welfare state…on the economic foundations of free market capitalism”).

And Japan could be considered an honorary member since it jumps 22 spots in the Laissez-Faire Index, up to #19.

I’ve argued that such nations compensate for the damage of high taxes and big welfare states by being very market-oriented in other ways. And the EFW data supports that assertion.

Though it’s worth noting that their large fiscal burdens do have a negative impact.

P.S. Looking at other nations in the Laissez-Faire Index, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada all remain in the top 10, though the United States falls six spots to #12. Georgia, Mauritius, Taiwan, and Lithuania all drop by double-digit amounts.

P.P.S. I did a version of the Laissez-Faire Index in 2015.

Read Full Post »

One of the more elementary observations about economics is that a nation’s prosperity is determined in part by the quantity of quality of labor and capital. These “factors of production” are combined to generate national income.

I frequently grouse that punitive tax policies discourage capital. There’s less incentive to invest, after all, if the government imposes extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

Bad tax laws also discourage labor. High marginal tax rates penalize people for being productive, and this can be especially counterproductive for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Though we shouldn’t overlook how government discourages low-income people from being productively employed. Only the problem is more on the spending side of the fiscal equation.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Early and Phil Gramm share some depressing numbers about growing dependency in the United States.

During the 20 years before the War on Poverty was funded, the portion of the nation living in poverty had dropped to 14.7% from 32.1%. Since 1966, the first year with a significant increase in antipoverty spending, the poverty rate reported by the Census Bureau has been virtually unchanged. …Transfers targeted to low-income families increased in real dollars from an average of $3,070 per person in 1965 to $34,093 in 2016. …Transfers now constitute 84.2% of the disposable income of the poorest quintile of American households and 57.8% of the disposable income of lower-middle-income households. These payments also make up 27.5% of America’s total disposable income.

This massive expansion of redistribution has negatively impacted incentives to work.

The stated goal of the War on Poverty is not just to raise living standards, but also to make America’s poor more self-sufficient and to bring them into the mainstream of the economy. In that effort the war has been an abject failure, increasing dependency and largely severing the bottom fifth of earners from the rewards and responsibilities of work. …The expanding availability of antipoverty transfers has devastated the work effort of poor and lower-middle income families. By 1975 the lowest-earning fifth of families had 24.8% more families with a prime-work age head and no one working than did their middle-income peers. By 2015 this differential had risen to 37.1%. …The War on Poverty has increased dependency and failed in its primary effort to bring poor people into the mainstream of America’s economy and communal life. Government programs replaced deprivation with idleness, stifling human flourishing. It happened just as President Franklin Roosevelt said it would: “The lessons of history,” he said in 1935, “show conclusively that continued dependency upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.”

In another WSJ column on the same topic, Peter Cove reached a similar conclusion.

America doesn’t have a worker shortage; it has a work shortage. The unemployment rate is at a 15-year low, but only 55% of Americans adults 18 to 64 have full-time jobs. Nearly 95 million people have removed themselves entirely from the job market. According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, the labor-force participation rate for men 25 to 54 is lower now than it was at the end of the Great Depression. The welfare state is largely to blame. …insisting on work in exchange for social benefits would succeed in reducing dependency. We have the data: Within 10 years of the 1996 reform, the number of Americans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program fell 60%. But no reform is permanent. Under President Obama, federal poverty programs ballooned.

Edward Glaeser produced a similar indictment in an article for City Journal.

In 1967, 95 percent of “prime-age” men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. During the Great Recession, though, the share of jobless prime-age males rose above 20 percent. Even today, long after the recession officially ended, more than 15 percent of such men aren’t working. …The rise of joblessness—especially among men—is the great American domestic crisis of the twenty-first century. It is a crisis of spirit more than of resources. …Proposed solutions that focus solely on providing material benefits are a false path. Well-meaning social policies—from longer unemployment insurance to more generous disability diagnoses to higher minimum wages—have only worsened the problem; the futility of joblessness won’t be solved with a welfare check. …various programs make joblessness more bearable, at least materially; they also reduce the incentives to find work. …The past decade or so has seen a resurgent progressive focus on inequality—and little concern among progressives about the downsides of discouraging work. …The decision to prioritize equality over employment is particularly puzzling, given that social scientists have repeatedly found that unemployment is the greater evil.

Why work, though, when government pays you not to work?

And that unfortunate cost-benefit analysis is being driven by ever-greater levels of dependency.

Writing for Forbes, Professor Jeffrey Dorfman echoed these findings.

…our current welfare system fails to prepare people to take care of themselves, makes poor people more financially fragile, and creates incentives to remain on welfare forever. …The first failure of government welfare programs is to favor help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor people to become self-sufficient in the future. …It is the classic story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Government welfare programs hand out lots of fish, but never seem to teach people how to fish for themselves. The problem is not a lack of job training programs, but rather the fact that the job training programs fail to help people. …The third flaw in the government welfare system is the way that benefits phase outs as a recipient’s income increases. …a poor family trying to escape poverty pays an effective marginal tax rate that is considerably higher than a middle class family and higher than or roughly equal to the marginal tax rate of a family in the top one percent.

I like that he also addressed problems such as implicit marginal tax rates and the failure of job-training programs.

Professor Lee Ohanian of the Hoover Institution reinforces the point that the welfare state provides lots of money in ways that stifle personal initiative.

Inequality is not an issue that policy should address. …Society, however, should care about creating economic opportunities for the lowest earners. …a family of four at the poverty level has about $22,300 per year of pre-tax income. Consumption for that same family of four on average, however, is about $44,000 per year, which means that their consumption level is about twice as high as their income. …We’re certainly providing many more resources to low-earning families today. But on the other hand, we have policies in place that either limit economic opportunities for low earners or distort the incentives for those earners to achieve prosperity.

I’ve been citing lots of articles, which might be tedious, so let’s take a break with a video about the welfare state from the American Enterprise Institute.

And if you like videos, here’s my favorite video about the adverse effects of the welfare state.

By the way, it isn’t just libertarians and conservatives who recognize the problem.

Coming from a left-of-center perspective, Catherine Rampell explains in the Washington Post how welfare programs discourage work.

…today’s social safety net discourages poor people from working, or at least from earning more money. …you might qualify for some welfare programs, such as food stamps, housing vouchers, child-care subsidies and Medicaid. But if you get a promotion, or longer hours, or a second job, or otherwise start making more, these benefits will start to evaporate — and sometimes quite abruptly. You can think about this loss of benefits as a kind of extra tax on low-income people. …Americans at or just above the poverty line typically face marginal tax rates of 34 percent. That is, for every additional dollar they earn, they keep only 66 cents. …One in 10 families with earnings close to the poverty line faces a marginal tax rate of at least 65 percent, the CBO found. …You don’t need to be a hardcore conservative to see how this system might make working longer hours, or getting a better job, less attractive than it might otherwise be.

To understand what this means, the Illinois Policy Institute calculated how poor people in the state are trapped in dependency.

The potential sum of welfare benefits can reach $47,894 annually for single-parent households and $41,237 for two-parent households. Welfare benefits will be available to some households earning as much as $74,880 annually. …A single mom has the most resources available to her family when she works full time at a wage of $8.25 to $12 an hour. Disturbingly, taking a pay increase to $18 an hour can leave her with about one-third fewer total resources (net income and government benefits). In order to make work “pay” again, she would need an hourly wage of $38 to mitigate the impact of lost benefits and higher taxes.

Agreeing that there’s a problem does not imply agreement about a solution.

Folks on the left think the solution to high implicit tax rates (i.e., the dependency trap) is to make benefits more widely available. In other words, don’t reduce handouts as income increases.

The other alternative is to make benefits less generous, which will simultaneously reduce implicit tax rates and encourage more work.

I’m sympathetic to the latter approach, but my view is that welfare programs should be designed and financed by state and local governments. We’re far more likely to see innovation as policy makers in different areas experiment with the best ways of preventing serious deprivation while also encouraging self-sufficiency.

I think we’ll find out that benefits should be lower, but maybe we’ll learn in certain cases that benefits should be expanded. But we won’t learn anything so long as there is a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington.

Let’s close with a political observation. A columnist for the New York Times is frustrated that many low-income voters are supporting Republicans because they see how their neighbors are being harmed by dependency.

Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net. …The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns. …I’ve heard variations on this theme all over the country: people railing against the guy across the street who is collecting disability payments but is well enough to go fishing, the families using their food assistance to indulge in steaks.

It’s not my role to pontificate about politics, so I won’t address that part of the column. But I will say that I’ve also found that hostility to welfare is strongest among those who have first-hand knowledge of how dependency hurts people.

P.S. If you want evidence for why Washington should get out of the business of income redistribution, check out this visual depiction of the welfare state.

P.S. The Canadians can teach us some good lessons about welfare reform.

P.P.S. The Nordic nations also provide valuable lessons, at least from the don’t-do-this perspective.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, there’s a Laffer-type relationship between welfare spending and poverty.

Read Full Post »

Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Today, we’re going to peruse his writings on Denmark.

Here’s some of what he wrote earlier this month.

Denmark can teach us…about the possibilities of creating a decent society. …Denmark, where tax receipts are 46 percent of GDP compared with 26 percent in the U.S., is arguably the most social-democratic country in the world. According to conservative doctrine, the combination of high taxes and aid to “takers” must really destroy incentives both to create jobs and to take them in any case. …what Denmark shows is that you can run a welfare state far more generous than we do – beyond the wildest dreams of U.S. progressives – and still have a highly successful economy. Indeed, while GDP per capita in Denmark is lower than in the U.S. – basically because of shorter work hours.

And here’s what he wrote a couple of days ago.

American politics has been dominated by a crusade against big government; Denmark has embraced an expansive government role, with public spending more than half of G.D.P. American politicians fear talk about redistribution of income from the rich to the less well-off; Denmark engages in such redistribution on a scale unimaginable here. …Conservative ideology says that Denmark’s policy choices should be disastrous, that grass should be growing in the streets of Copenhagen. …But if Denmark is a hellhole, it’s doing a very good job of hiding that fact: I was just there, and it looks awfully prosperous. …The simple fact is that life is better for most Danes than it is for their U.S. counterparts.

Interestingly, Krugman acknowledges that Denmark isn’t really socialist. Instead, it simply has a big welfare state.

But is Denmark socialist? …Denmark doesn’t at all fit the classic definition of socialism, which involves government ownership of the means of production. It is, instead, social-democratic: a market economy where the downsides of capitalism are mitigated by government action, including a very strong social safety net. …The simple fact is that there is far more misery in America than there needs to be. Every other advanced country has universal health care and a much stronger social safety net than we do.

He thinks that is a good thing, of course, and was making the same argument (using the same headline) in 2015.

…the Danes get a lot of things right, and in so doing refute just about everything U.S. conservatives say about economics. …Denmark maintains a welfare state — a set of government programs designed to provide economic security — that is beyond the wildest dreams of American liberals. …working-age families receive more than three times as much aid, as a share of G.D.P., as their U.S. counterparts. To pay for these programs, Denmark collects a lot of taxes. …Overall, Denmark’s tax take is almost half of national income, compared with 25 percent in the United States. …It’s hard to imagine a better refutation of anti-tax, anti-government economic doctrine, which insists that a system like Denmark’s would be completely unworkable.

As far as I can tell, all his numbers about Denmark are accurate, but his analysis is wrong.

He wants readers to believe that the lesson from Denmark is that there are no adverse economic consequences when nations impose a big welfare state and high taxes.

But that’s not what Danish economic history tells us. As with other Nordic nations, Denmark became a rich nation when government was relatively small and taxes were modest.

And we know from historical data that economic performance significantly weakened after the fiscal burden of government was increased.

Moreover, lawmakers are now trying to restrain government spending.

The first thing to realize is that Denmark, as are the other Nordic countries, quite free markets, apart from their welfare state transfers and high government consumption. They tend to get rather high rankings on measures of the most free economies in the World. …Protection of property rights and the integrity of the legal system are very high by international standards, as is the soundness of the monetary system… Denmark has a long tradition for free trade… Credit markets are among the less regulated internationally. During the recent financial crisis, tax payers did not have to subsidize banks, and some banks were allowed to fail. The Danish labor market is very flexible: There is no legislated minimum wage, and there are few restrictions on hiring and firing.

Here’s the part that is a must-read.

Denmark did not become a rich country recently. …Danish per capita GDP relative to other countries reached a maximum 40-60 years ago… Denmark caught up to and overtook “old Europe” in the fifties, while it narrowed its gap to the US and other Western offsprings until the early 1970s, when the process of catching up came to a hold. …At the time Denmark became rich relative to the rest of the World, it was not a welfare state. In fact, Denmark has historically been a low tax country by international standards. Until the 1960s, the Danish tax revenue to GDP ratio was at the same level as the US, and lower than the British.

Unfortunately, policy veered in the wrong direction in the late 1960s, with very adverse consequences.

The sharp divergence in the Danish tax level really occurred in the second half of the 1960s, when first a left wing coalition government and then a right wing one increased the tax to GDP ratio by some ten percentage points. …government spending was to a large extent driven by increases in tax revenue stemming from the introduction of VAT and withholding taxes on wage income. …the welfare state attracted new clients and new programs were added, the economic crisis lead to increasing unemployment… By the early 1980s the economy was in very bad shape, with high unemployment, an inflationary deflation spiral, a huge and widening government deficit.

I can’t help but call your attention to Otto’s observation about how the VAT enabled a far larger burden of government.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

This chart shows how the tax burden in Denmark diverged from the United States.

So what’s the bottom line?

Denmark first became rich, and then introduced the programs, which make up the welfare state. The huge increase in government spending has been accompanied by deep structural problems, which has made it necessary to reform the Danish economy and welfare state ever since. It can hardly be claimed that introducing the welfare state made Denmark rich; rather it was the other way around. Denmark first became rich, and then authorities began to redistribute some of the wealth.

Amen. I made the same point back in 2011.

Writing for PJ Media, Tyler O’Neil reviews the good and bad in Denmark and also echoes Otto’s analysis.

A deeper look at the history and current affairs of Denmark and the surrounding countries tells a different story, however. These countries’ benefits arguably spring from their free-market pasts, not their brief dalliance with big government. …During the early 1900s and following the Great Depression, Scandinavia’s small government and free markets fostered a culture of hard work that paid huge dividends in terms of prosperity.

Unfortunately, starting about 50 years ago, Denmark (like many other nations in the region) adopted an expensive welfare state. With bad results.

…the 1960s – 1990s expansion of welfare states actually held the Nordic countries back. After their experiment with socialistic welfare states, “Nordic citizens now have unusually high levels of sickness absence (despite being healthy societies), high youth unemployment and a poor record for integrating migrants into the labour force,” Sanandaji explains. Big government has weakened the strong culture which enabled welfare states in the first place… In 2013, roughly 240,000 people — nine percent of the potential work force — were receiving disability checks, and about 33,500 of them were under 40.

I fully agree. Denmark’s welfare state has created a problem. Simply stated, there are too many people who depend on government compared to the number of taxpayers who finance government.

I sometimes use the example of how many people are pulling the wagon compared to the number of people riding in the wagon. The Danish version uses Viking ships.

Fortunately, now there’s an effort to move back in the right direction.

Denmark now outranks even the United States as a good place to do business. …In 2013, it reduced early-retirement plans, and cut the term for unemployment benefits from four years to two. …In recent years, all the Nordic countries have decreased their corporate tax rates — each one is lower than in the United States. They also support free trade, unlike American Socialists.

Let’s look at some specific examples of how Denmark is trying to undo the damage of excessive government.

Bloomberg reported last year about the ongoing effort to reduce the nation’s fiscal burden.

When a European government raises the pension age and makes cuts to welfare programs, it’s usually because of dire finances. In Denmark’s case, it’s because of ideology. …Driving the new government’s push is a desire to finance a major round of income tax cuts. “We want to promote a society in which it is easier to support yourself and your family before you hand over a large share of your income to fund the costs of society,” the government of Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen wrote in its manifesto. It’s all part of a Danish drift toward the political right… Reforms introduced by successive governments over the years have already ensured that Denmark’s expensive welfare state is sustainable for years to come, says Torben M. Andersen, a professor of economics at the University of Aarhus and a former government adviser. These include raising the retirement age to 67 years from 65 years by 2025.

Denmark is also cutting back on college subsidies.

As one of a handful of countries that offers free tuition to college students, Denmark grants students enormous freedom… But some Danes, especially older citizens already in the labor force, say the extra freedom can eliminate a crucial sense of urgency for 20-somethings to become adults. The country now deals with “eternity students” — people who stick around at college for six years or more without any plans of graduating, solely because they don’t have any financial incentive to leave. …The country has made some headway to counter eternity students. In 2015, the Danish government proposed and passed an amendment to the Study Progress Reform… Jakobsen said the amendment has definitely reduced the trend of eternity students.

Now let’s get to my contribution to this discussion.

A few years ago, I created a “statism spectrum” to show how countries differ when looking at total economic freedom (fiscal policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and quality of governance).

And I pointed out that nations with onerous fiscal burdens can still rank relatively high if they have a very pro-market approach in other areas.

But I have to confess that my spectrum was a back-of-the-envelope exercise. I simply drew a line and then added six countries.

Time for some rigor. I downloaded the latest scores from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World and created this chart showing the relative ranking of all the countries (divided by category). As you can see, the United States and Denmark are both in the top category and they both have very similar levels of overall economic liberty.

And to put those numbers in context, here’s the same chart, but also showing France, Greece, and Venezuela.

In other words, there’s a lot to admire about Denmark. Yes, taxes are onerous and the burden of spending is still too high, but it’s nonetheless one of the most market-oriented countries in the world because of laissez-faire policies in other areas.

My bottom line is that Paul Krugman is right to praise Denmark.

My only gripe is that he likes the one thing that they’re doing wrong and overlooks all the things that make the country a relative success.

Moreover, he ignores all the recent efforts to reduce the fiscal burden of government, probably because that would require him to acknowledge that large public sectors are bad for growth.

P.S. Denmark is way ahead of the United States in its market-friendly, savings-based approach to retirement.

P.P.S. Denmark also ranks above America in protecting the right of private property.

P.P.P.S. But the United States does rank above Denmark when all policies are part of the equation, which presumably helps to explain why Americans are richer. And that also is probably why Danes in America earn a lot more than Danes in Denmark.

Read Full Post »

Last September, I shared some very encouraging data showing how extreme poverty dramatically has declined in the developing world.

And I noted that this progress happened during a time when the “Washington Consensus” was resulting in “neoliberal” policies (meaning “classical liberal“) in those nations (confirmed by data from Economic Freedom of the World).

In other words, pro-market policies were the recipe for poverty reduction, not foreign aid or big government.

Sadly, the Washington Consensus has been supplanted. Bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are now pushing a statist agenda based on the bizarre theory that higher taxes and more spending somehow produce prosperity.

To add insult to injury, some people now want to rewrite history and argue that free markets don’t deserve credit for the poverty reduction that already has occurred.

Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, writing for Our World in Data, wants readers to conclude that redistribution programs deserve credit.

…the share of people living in extreme poverty around the world has fallen continuously over the last two centuries. …many often say that globalization in the form of ‘free-market capitalism’ is the main force to be thanked for such remarkable historical achievement. …this focus on ‘free-market capitalism’ alone is misguided. …Governments around the world have dramatically increased their potential to collect revenues in order to redistribute resources through social transfers… The reach of governments has grown substantially over the last century: the share of total output that governments control is much larger today than a century ago.

And for evidence, Mr. Ortiz-Ospina included this chart.

I shared a version of this data back in June, asserting that the explosion of social welfare spending made this “the western world’s most depressing chart.”

So does Ortiz-Ospina have a compelling argument? Does poverty go down as welfare spending goes up?

Nope. Johan Norberg points out that there is a gaping flaw in this argument. An enormous, gigantic hole.

Wow. This isn’t just a flaw. It’s malpractice. It’s absurd to argue that welfare spending in developed nations somehow led to poverty reduction in developing countries.

I hope Mr. Ortiz-Ospina is just an inexperienced intern, because if he really understands the data, one might be forced to conclude that he’s dishonest.

But let’s set that issue aside. Johan closes his video by explaining that poverty in rich nations declined before modern welfare states. I want to expand on that point.

Johan cited Martin Ravallion, so I tracked down his work. And here’s the chart he put together, which I’ve modified to show (outlined in red) that extreme poverty basically disappeared between 1820 and 1930.

And guess what?

That was the period when there was no welfare state. Not only is that apparent from Our World in Data, it’s also what we see in Vito Tanzi’s numbers.

Here’s Tanzi’s table, which I first shared five years ago. And I’ve circled in red the 1880-1930 data to underscore that there was virtually no redistribution during the years poverty was declining.

The bottom line is that poverty in the western world fell during the period of small government. Yet some people want to put the cart before the horse. They’re making the absurd argument that post-1950s welfare spending somehow reduced poverty before the 1930s.

That’s as absurd as Paul Krugman blaming a 2008 recession in Estonia on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

P.S. For those who want U.S.-specific data, it’s worth noting that dramatic reductions in American poverty all occurred before Washington launched the so-called “War on Poverty.”

Read Full Post »

Last week, I shared very grim data, going all the way back to 1880, on the growth of the welfare state.

I even claimed that the accompanying graph was the “western world’s most depressing chart” because it showed the dramatic increase in the burden of government spending for redistribution programs.

And I didn’t even mention that the numbers likely will get even worse because of changing demographics.

Now it’s time for the western world’s second-most depressing chart. Like the first chart, the data for this second chart comes from “Our world in data,” only this time it shows the relentless and astounding (in a depressing way) expansion in tax burdens starting in 1868. It only shows four countries, but other western nations would show the same pattern.

What isn’t shown in this chart is that the tax burden used to be reasonable because governments generally did not have income taxes.

The United Kingdom was an early adopter, but France, Sweden, and the United States didn’t impose that onerous levy until the 1900s. And it’s no coincidence that the tax burden exploded once politicians learned to exploit that source of revenue.

An obvious lesson is that it is never a good idea to give politicians a new source of revenue. We see in the above chart what happened once nations imposed income taxes. We’ve also seen increases in fiscal burdens in nations that imposed value-added taxes (which is why Americans should fight to their dying breaths before allowing that levy in the United States).

From the perspective of politicians, they like new sources of revenue because that increases “tax capacity,” which is an Orwellian term that describes their ability to grab more money from the economy’s productive sector.

And here’s another chart from “Our world in data” showing how income taxes and VATs (along with income-tax withholding) have become ubiquitous.

Very depressing trends. Reminds me of the biased grading of tax regimes from the World Bank.

Let’s close with the tiny bit of good news from the website. Here’s a chart showing how top rates for the personal income tax dropped substantially between 1979 and 2002.

This happened, needless to say, because of tax competition. As globalization expanded, it became easier and easier for taxpayers to move themselves and/or their money from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions.

Politicians thus were forced to lower tax rates so the geese with the golden eggs didn’t fly away.

Sadly, updated versions of this chart now show top tax rates heading in the wrong direction, in large part because tax havens have been weakened and politicians no longer feel as much competitive pressure.

Read Full Post »

Last week, I shared a graph showing that there are more guns than people in the United States, and I wrote that it was the “most enjoyable” chart of the year, mostly because it gets my leftist friends so agitated.

But I’m more likely to share gloomy visuals.

  • The “most depressing” chart about Denmark, which shows a majority of the population lives off government.
  • A “very depressing” chart about the United States, which shows how big business profits from cronyism.
  • The “most depressing” chart about Japan, which shows that the tax burden has nearly doubled since 1965.

Now it’s time to add to that list. There’s a website called “Our World in Data,” which is a great resource if you’re a policy wonk who likes numbers. But some numbers are quite depressing.

For instance,if you peruse the “public spending” page, you’ll find a chart showing the dramatic expansion of redistribution spending as a share of economic output.

These numbers are very similar to the table I shared from Vito Tanzi back in 2013, which isn’t surprising since Professor Peter Lindert is the underlying source for both sets of data.

While the above chart is depressing to a libertarian, it’s nonetheless instructive because it confirms my argument that the western world became rich when government was very small and redistribution was tiny or even nonexistent.

For instance, nations in North America and Western Europe largely made the transition from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity during the “golden century” between the Napoleanic wars and World War I. And that was a period when redistribution spending basically didn’t exist and most nations didn’t even have income taxes (the U.S. didn’t make that mistake until 1913).

And even as recently as 1960, welfare states were very small compared to their current size. Indeed, redistribution spending in western nations averaged only about 10 percent of economic output, about half the size of today’s supposedly miserly American welfare state.

These points are important because some folks on the left misinterpret Wagner’s Law and actually try to argue that bigger government is good for growth.

P.S. South Korea has been a great success story for the past five decades, but that redistribution trendline is very worrisome.

P.P.S. The trendline for Greece helps to explain why that nation is bankrupt.

P.P.P.S. The chart shows that Canada is better than the United States, though that may not last since Canada’s current Prime Minister is seeking to undermine his nation’s competitive advantage.

P.P.P.P.S. While fiscal trends in the western world have been unfavorable, that bad news has been offset by positive trends for trade liberalization. Whether we see a big step backwards because of Trump remains to be seen.

Read Full Post »

America has a major dependency problem. In recent decades, there’s been a significant increase in the number of working-age adults relying on handouts.

This is bad news for poor people and bad news for taxpayers. But it’s also bad news for the nation since it reflects an erosion of societal capital.

For all intents and purposes, people are being paid not to be productive.

Guided by the spirit of Calvin Coolidge, we need to reform the welfare state.

Professor Dorfman of the University of Georgia, in a column for Forbes, pinpoints the core problem.

The first failure of government welfare programs is to favor help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor people to become self-sufficient in the future. …It is the classic story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Government welfare programs hand out lots of fish, but never seem to teach people how to fish for themselves. The problem is not a lack of job training programs, but rather the fact that the job training programs fail to help people. In a study for ProPublica, Amy Goldstein documents that people who lost their jobs and participated in a federal job training program were less likely to be employed afterward than those who lost their jobs and did not receive any job training. That is, the job training made people worse off instead of better. …Right now, the government cannot teach anyone how to find a fish, let alone catch one.

And Peter Cove opines on the issue for the Wall Street Journal.

…the labor-force participation rate for men 25 to 54 is lower now than it was at the end of the Great Depression. The welfare state is largely to blame. More than a fifth of American men of prime working age are on Medicaid. According to the Census Bureau, nearly three-fifths of nonworking men receive federal disability benefits. The good news is that the 1996 welfare reform taught us how to reduce government dependency and get idle Americans back to work. …Within 10 years of the 1996 reform, the number of Americans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program fell 60%.

Interestingly, European nations seem to be more interested in fixing the problem, perhaps because they’ve reached the point where reform is a fiscal necessity.

Let’s look at what happened when the Dutch tightened benefit rules.

A fascinating new study from economists in California and the Netherlands sheds light on how welfare dependency is passed from one generation to the next – and how to save children from lives of idleness.

A snowball effect across generations could arise if welfare dependency is transmitted from parents to their children, with potentially serious consequences for the future economic situation of children. …there is little evidence on whether this relationship is causal. Testing for the existence of a behavioural response, where children become benefit recipients because their parents were, is difficult… Our work overcomes these identification challenges by exploiting a 1993 reform in the Dutch Disability Insurance (DI) programme… The 1993 reform tightened DI eligibility for existing and future claimants, but exempted older cohorts currently on DI (age 45+) from the new rules. This reform generates quasi-experimental variation in DI use… Intuitively, the idea is to compare the children of parents who are just over 45 years of age to children whose parents are just under 45. .

Here’s the methodology of their research.

The first step is to understand the impact of the 1993 reform on parents. Figure 1 shows that parents who were just under the age 45 cut-off, and therefore subject to the harsher DI rules, are 5.5 percentage points more likely to exit DI by the year 1999 compared to parents just over the age 45 cut-off. These treated parents saw a 1,300 euro drop in payments on average. …the reform changed other outcomes as well. There is a strong rebound in labour earnings.

This chart from their research captures the discontinuity.

Here are the main results.

The second step is to see how children’s DI use changed based on whether the reform affected their parents. We measure a child’s cumulative use of DI as of 2014, by which time they are 37 years old on average. Figure 2 reveals a noticeable jump in child DI participation at the parental age cut-off of 45. There is an economically significant 1.1 percentage point drop for children if their parent was exposed to the reform, which translates into an 11% effect relative to the mean child participation rate of 10%. …welfare cultures, defined as a causal intergenerational link, exist.

This second chart illustrates the positive impact.

But here’s the most important part of the research.

Reducing access to redistribution to parents is a good way of boosting income and education for children.

…we examine whether a child’s taxable earnings and participation in other social support programmes change. Cumulative earnings up to 2014 rise by approximately €7,200 euros, or a little less than 2%, for children of parents subject to the less generous DI rules. In contrast, we find no detectable change in cumulative unemployment insurance receipt, general assistance (i.e. traditional cash welfare), or other miscellaneous safety net programs. Looking at a child’s educational attainment, there is intriguing evidence for anticipatory investments. When a parent is subject to the reform which tightened DI benefits, their child invests in 0.12 extra years of education relative to an overall mean of 11.5 years. …these findings provide suggestive evidence that children of treated parents plan for a future with less reliance on DI in part by investing in their labour market skills.

And it’s also worth noting that taxpayers benefit when welfare eligibility is restricted.

These strong intergenerational links between parents and children have sizable fiscal consequences for the government’s long term budget. Cumulative DI payments to children of the targeted parents are 16% lower. This is a substantial additional saving for the government’s budget, especially since there is no evidence that children substitute these reductions in DI income for additional income from other social assistance programmes. Furthermore, there is a fiscal gain resulting from the increased taxes these children pay due to their increased labour market earnings. Overall, we calculate that through the year 2013, children account for 21% of the net fiscal savings of the 1993 Dutch reform in present discounted value terms. This share is projected to increase to 40% over time.

Ryan Streeter of American Enterprise Institute explains that other European nations also are reforming.

Welfare reformers might draw some lessons from unlikely places, such as Scandinavia. While progressives like to uphold Nordic democratic socialism as a model for America, the Scandinavian welfare systems are arguably more pro-work than ours… For instance, to deal with declining labor force participation, Denmark eliminated permanent disability benefits for people under 40 and refashioned its system to make employment central. Sweden reformed its welfare system to focus on rapid transitions from unemployment to work. Their program lowers jobless assistance the longer one is on welfare. The Nordic model is more focused on eliminating reasons not to work such as caregiving or lack of proper training than providing income replacement. Similarly, the British government combined six welfare programs with varying requirements into a single “universal credit.” The benefit is based on a sliding scale and decreases as a recipient’s earnings increase, replacing several differing formulas for phasing out of welfare programs with one. An evaluation of the new program, which encourages work, found that 86 percent of claimants were trying to increase their work hours and 77 percent were trying to earn more, compared to 38 percent and 55 percent, respectively, under the previous system. …Scandinavia and Britain learned a while ago that successful welfare reform is not just about how much money a country spends on people who earn too little. It’s really about how to help them find and keep a good job. It’s time for America to catch up.

Amen.

For what it’s worth, I think we’ll be most likely to get good results if we get Washington out of the redistribution business.

In effect, block grant all means-tested programs to the states and then phase out the federal funding. That would give states the ability to experiment and they could learn from each other about the best way of helping the truly needy while minimizing incentives for idleness.

P.S. This WIzard-of-Id parody is a very good explanation of why handouts discourage productive work.

Read Full Post »

According to research from the Bank for International Settlements, the long-term fiscal outlook for the United Kingdom is very grim. The data generated by the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development isn’t quite as dour, but those bureaucracies also show very significant long-run fiscal challenges.

The problem in the U.K. is the same as the problem in the United States. And France. And Germany. And Japan. Simply stated, the welfare state is becoming an ever-larger burden in large part because the elderly population is expanding in developed nations compared to the number of potential taxpayers.

The good news, as noted in this BBC story, is that some folks in the United Kingdom realize this is bad news for young people.

Lord Willetts…said the contract between young and old had “broken down”. Without action, young people would become “increasingly angry”.

The bad news is that these folks apparently think you solve the problem of young-to-old redistribution by adding a layer of old-to-young redistribution.

I’m not joking.

A £10,000 payment should be given to the young and pensioners taxed more, a new report into inter-generational fairness in the UK suggests. The research and policy organisation, the Resolution Foundation, says these radical moves are needed to better fund the NHS and maintain social cohesion. …The foundation’s Intergenerational Commission report calls for an NHS “levy” of £2.3bn paid for by increased national insurance contributions by those over the age of 65. It says that all young people should receive a £10,000 windfall at the age of 25 to help pay for a deposit on a home, start a business or improve their education or skills.

To be fair, proponents of this idea are correct about young people getting a bad deal from the current system. And they are right about older people getting more from government than they pay to government.

“There’s no avoiding the pressures for more spending on healthcare and social care, the question is how we meet those pressures,” he replied. “Extra borrowing is unfair on the younger generation. “Extra taxes on the working population – when especially younger workers have not really seen any increase in their pay – will be very unfair. “It so happens that the older people who will benefit most from extra spending on health care have got some resources, so at low rates, it’s reasonable to expect them to contribute.

But I fundamentally disagree with their conclusion that bigger government is the answer.

“It is better than any of the alternatives.”

For what it’s worth, what’s happening in the U.K. is an example of Mitchell’s Law. Young people are getting a bad deal because of programs created by government.

But rather than proposing to unwind the programs that caused the problem, the folks at the Resolution Foundation have decided that creating additional programs financed by additional taxes is the way to go.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that the group also has other bad ideas.

The report calls for the scrapping of the council tax system, replacing it with a new property tax which would raise more money from wealthier homeowners. The proceeds would be used to halve stamp duty for first-time buyers.

Let’s close by looking at some interesting data about the attitudes of the young.

…a poll undertaken for the Intergenerational Commission also suggested people were more pessimistic in Britain about the chances of the next generation having “better lives” than the one before it – compared with almost any other country.

Here’s the chart showing data for the U.K. and several other nations.

Congratulations to France for having the most pessimistic young people (maybe this is why so many of them would move to the U.S. if they had the chance).

And I think the South Koreans are too glum and the Chinese are too optimistic. The Italians also are too upbeat. But otherwise these numbers generally make sense.

P.S. I was very pessimistic about the U.K. in 2012, but had a more upbeat assessment last summer. Now the pendulum has now swung back in the other direction.

P.P.S. If the Brits screw up Brexit, I’ll be even more downbeat about the nation’s outlook.

Read Full Post »

I’m conflicted.

I’ve repeatedly expressed skepticism about the idea of governments providing a “basic income” because I fear the work ethic will (further) erode if people automatically receive a substantial chunk of money.

Moreover, I also fear that a basic income will lead to an ever-expanding burden of government spending, particularly once net beneficiaries figure out they can vote themselves more money.

Given these concerns, I should be happy about this report from the New York Times.

For more than a year, Finland has been testing the proposition that the best way to lift economic fortunes may be the simplest: Hand out money without rules or restrictions on how people use it. The experiment with so-called universal basic income has captured global attention… Now, the experiment is ending. The Finnish government has opted not to continue financing it past this year, a reflection of public discomfort with the idea of dispensing government largess free of requirements that its recipients seek work. …the Finnish government’s decision to halt the experiment at the end of 2018 highlights a challenge to basic income’s very conception. Many people in Finland — and in other lands — chafe at the idea of handing out cash without requiring that people work. …Finland’s goals have been modest and pragmatic. The government hoped that basic income would send more people into the job market to revive a weak economy. …The basic income trial, which started at the beginning of 2017 and will continue until the end of this year, has given monthly stipends of 560 euros ($685) to a random sample of 2,000 unemployed people aged 25 to 58. Recipients have been free to do as they wished… The Finnish government was keen to see what people would do under such circumstances. The data is expected to be released next year, giving academics a chance to analyze what has come of the experiment.

The reason I’m conflicted is that the current welfare state – both in the United States and other developed nations – is bad for both taxpayers and poor people.

So I like the idea of experimentation. There has to be a better way of alleviating genuine suffering without trapping poor people in dependency or punishing taxpayers.

Indeed, one of my arguments for radical decentralization in America is that states will try different approaches and we’ll have a much better chance of learning what works and what doesn’t.

And maybe we’ll learn that there are some benefits of providing a basic income. But, as reported by the U.K.-based Guardian, it’s unclear whether the Finnish experiment lasted long enough or was comprehensive enough to teach us anything.

The scheme – aimed primarily at seeing whether a guaranteed income might incentivise people to take up paid work by smoothing out gaps in the welfare system…it was hoped it would shed light on policy issues such as whether an unconditional payment might reduce anxiety among recipients and allow the government to simplify a complex social security system… Olli Kangas, an expert involved in the trial, told the Finnish public broadcaster YLE: “Two years is too short a period to be able to draw extensive conclusions from such a big experiment. We should have had extra time and more money to achieve reliable results.”

I will be interested to see whether researchers generate any conclusions when they look at the two years of data from the Finnish experiment.

That being said, there already has been some research that underscores my concerns.

The OECD is not my favorite international bureaucracy, but its recent survey on Finland included some sobering estimates on the cost of a nationwide basic income.

In a basic income scenario, a lump-sum benefit replaces a number of existing benefits, financed by increasing income taxation by nearly 30% or around 4% of GDP. …the basic income requires significant increases to income taxation. …Financing a basic income at a meaningful level thus would require considerable additional tax revenue, and heavier taxation of income would at least partially undo any improvement in work incentives.

And in a report on basic income last year, the OECD poured more cold water on the idea.

…large tax-revenue changes are needed to finance a BI at meaningful levels, and tax reforms would therefore need to be an integral part of budget-neutral BI proposals. …abolishing tax-free allowances and making BI taxable means that everybody would pay income tax on the BI, and on all their other income. Tax burdens would go up for most people as a result, further increasing tax-to-GDP ratios that are currently already at a record-high in the OECD area. …There are also major concerns about unintended consequences of a BI. An especially prominent one is that unconditional income support would reduce the necessity for paid work.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see how work incentives aren’t adversely affected. Why go through the hassle of being employed when you can sit at home and play computer games all day?

P.S. Given the option of voting on a basic income in 2016, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected the notion.

P.P.S. Former Vice President Joe Biden actually agrees with me about one of the downsides of basic income.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: