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Archive for the ‘Welfare State’ Category

The worst piece of legislation in 2021 was Biden’s so-called stimulus, which added $1.9 trillion to America’s fiscal burden.

The worst provision of that legislation almost certainly was a temporary per-child entitlement of $3,000-$3,600.

Biden then wanted to make this entitlement permanent as part of his $5 trillion plan to “build back better.”

Fortunately, that boondoggle sank under its own weight and the slimmed-down (but still bad) version that ultimately was enacted earlier this year did not include any per-child handouts.

That’s the good news, at least relatively speaking.

The bad news is that Congress and the White House have renewed their push for a permanent per-child entitlement.

And, because Republicans will control the House of Representatives starting in January, they are trying to push the policy through next month.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized today about per-child handouts.

A core Democratic priority in Congress is resurrecting a $3,000 child tax credit for dependents ages six and up, with a $600 bonus for younger children. …The Internal Revenue Service is now another turnstile of the welfare state. That’s because over time Congress made more of the credit “refundable,” which means available to those who don’t owe federal income taxes. …a universal basic income for people with children. …The full Democratic allowance would cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years… Low-income voters are always assumed to support cash benefits, but 46% of those earning less than $50,000 opposed the payments. That may be because Americans understand that poverty in the U.S. is now less about material deprivation and more about idleness, addiction, mental illness and other destructive realities that can’t be cured with a bigger check.

There were many arguments against these per-child handouts (reversing Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, setting the stage for universal basic income, etc).

But those topics are not playing a big role in this debate.

Instead, the White House and Congress are engaged in a naked vote-buying scheme.

They want to create more dependency, regardless of the economic and societal consequences.

What are some of those consequences? Those are discussed in a column by Scott Hodge, which also is in today’s Wall Street Journal.

He starts with a mea culpa about his role in creating child credits and also warns about the risks of creating a system where the IRS is a dispenser of goodies rather than a tax-collection agency for almost half the population.

I was one of the inventors of the child tax credit, nearly 25 years ago—and I think it’s a bad idea. …Key elements of this plan made their way into the 1994 House Republicans’ Contract with America. Congress enacted the $500 child tax credit as part of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, and it grew from there. …The Bush tax cuts in 2001 temporarily doubled the credit to $1,000… The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doubled the credit again, to $2,000… Each expansion meant fewer households on the tax rolls. …The expanded credit…contributed significantly to increasing the number of households with little or no income-tax liability. …some 74 million tax filers—or nearly half (48.3%) of all filers in 2021—had no income tax liability. …Can we have a sustainable tax system if the number of nonpayers continues to grow?

Since I’m mostly worried about the economic consequences, here’s the part of Scott’s column that grabbed my attention.

…recent studies estimating the economic effects of the proposed expansion suggest that it would cause people to leave the workforce, reduce work effort, and lower capital investment, ultimately shrinking economic output. A recent study by economists at the University of Chicago determined that without any changes in behavior, expanding the credit would reduce child poverty by 34% and “deep” child poverty—families whose income is less than half the poverty level—by 39%. But those gains would come at a cost: the diminution of the workforce by 1.5 million people. …A new study by Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation…determined…the policy would reduce the labor supply by 0.2% and reduce the amount of capital by 0.4%. As a result of the reduced supply of labor and capital investment, gross domestic product would shrink by 0.2%.

I’m guessing that some readers will be shrugging their shoulders because numbers such as 0.2 percent and 0.4 percent don’t sound very big.

But keep in mind that we have dozens of bad policies in Washington that have this type of effect, and their cumulative impact is very big.

And for those who like comparisons, it’s worth observing that living standards in Europe are significantly below American levels precisely because politicians in places such as Greece, France, and Italy have made even more of these mistakes.

The bottom line is that free enterprise is the best way of helping poor people, not government dependency.

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When I write about Argentina, I normally have bad things to say.

Today, for only the second time, I’m going to say something positive about Argentina. At least in a back-handed way.

I’m currently in Buenos Aires for a conference. And because Argentinian monetary policy is even worse than U.S. monetary policy, the dollar is very strong and I’m able to enjoy great steak dinners for about $15.

Unfortunately, my gain is Argentina’s loss.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Dave Seminara discusses that nation’s long-run decline.

Argentina was one of the world’s seven richest countries at the turn of the last century thanks to its agricultural abundance. “People used to say someone is as rich as an Argentine.” …But bad governance has taken a heavy toll. More than a third of Argentines live in poverty and tens of thousands of small businesses closed during the pandemic. …nearly every young person…is plotting an escape to Europe or North America. …Argentina ranks 126th in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index and 96th on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, behind developing countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kosovo. A bloated public sector weighs down Latin America’s third-largest economy. Roughly half the country either works for the government or depends on it for social welfare benefits. …The left’s mistakes in Argentina…profligate social spending, high taxes, and too many restrictions on commerce—are eerily similar to the priorities of the American left.

The most important passage in the above excerpts is that “Roughly half the country either works for the government or depends on it for social welfare benefits.”

How can you save a country when such a high percentage of the population has a direct incentive to vote for more government?

But it’s possible the outlook is even worse if you compared private sector workers to government bureaucrats.

Writing for National Review, Antonella Marty is very dismayed by Argentina’s trajectory.

Argentina’s annual inflation rate now exceeds 70 percent — a 30-year high. Its monthly inflation (just under 8 percent) is comparable to the U.S.’s annual inflation… Argentina is starting to resemble Venezuela — and no country wants to resemble Venezuela. How did things get this bad? The answer is actually quite simple: a big government that loves printing money. For decades, government intervention in Argentina’s economy has ballooned to such an extent that the state basically dictates the overwhelming majority of private-sector activity either directly or indirectly. The public sector’s meddling is notorious, crowding out the entrepreneurship, innovation, and job creation that keeps markets free and healthy. While Argentina’s population exceeds 45 million people, only about six million Argentines are employed in the private sector, while 55 percent of the country’s registered workers are employed by the government.

I don’t know which factoid is more depressing. Is it that “only about six million Argentines are employed in the private sector” or is it that “55 percent of the country’s registered workers are employed by the government”?

For what it’s worth, I assume “registered workers” does not include people in the underground economy. And because taxes and red tape are such a nightmare in Argentina, a lot of economic activity has been forced into the shadows.

But that does not change the fact that the country has a far-too-heavy burden of government. Politicians have turned a rich country into a basket case. And the situation seems to get worse every year, even when supposedly right-leaning governments occasionally get elected.

P.S. There’s an interesting debate whether Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt was the worst president in U.S. history. In Argentina, there’s no ambiguity.

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I have repeatedly opined that big government enables corruption.

And I have also asserted over and over again that big government is a racket for the benefit of insiders.

So you can understand why I get upset when the rich and powerful use the coercive power of government to line their pockets at the expense of ordinary taxpayers.

Now I have a new reason to be angry.

Reporting for the New York Times, Neil MacFarquhar describes a scandal involving Mississippi bigwigs feeding at the public trough.

John Davis, who served as executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services under former Gov. Phil Bryant, pleaded guilty to both federal and state charges of embezzling federal welfare funds. Millions of dollars were transferred to friends and relatives, court documents say. According to a lawsuit filed by the state in May, around $5 million was diverted to Ted DiBiase, a flamboyant retired wrestler once known as “The Million Dollar Man,” and two of his sons… Much of the money went to fictitious services, bogus jobs, first-class travel arrangements and even one son’s stay at a luxury rehab center in Malibu, Calif., that cost $160,000, the suit claims. Similarly, the state claims that Marcus Dupree, a former high school football phenom and professional running back, who was paid to act as a celebrity endorser and motivational speaker, did not perform any contractual services toward the $371,000 he received to purchase and live in a sprawling residence with a swimming pool and adjacent horse pastures in a gated community. Mr. Favre, who earned more than $140 million in his Hall of Fame career, was paid $1.1 million for speeches he never gave, the suit said. He also orchestrated more than $2 million in government funds being channeled to a biotechnology start-up in which he had invested, according to the suit. …The case follows a state audit released in May 2020 suggesting that as much as $94 million of TANF funds might have gone astray.

Sounds like a typical story about big government and corruption, right?

That’s certainly true, but some of our friends on the left argue that it is also evidence that Bill Clinton’s welfare reform backfired.

Experts said the fraud was rooted in changes enacted in such programs in 1996, when cash benefits paid to poor families were replaced by block grants issued to states.

Since I have defended Clinton’s welfare reform (along with some of his other good policies), the above excerpt caught my attention.

So I looked for more information.

In a piece for the American Enterprise Institute, Angela Rachidi explains the underlying issues.

A scandal involving former NFL quarterback Brett Favre and the federal welfare program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) exploded…following new revelations that Mississippi officials, including the former governor, misdirected federal TANF money to enrich themselves, their celebrity friends, and other well-connected individuals. …the scandal draws attention to the TANF program. Critics have partly blamed the welfare reform law from 1996, which created TANF, for allowing such fraud. …Instead of an entitlement where government officials distribute money to all eligible people, TANF is a block grant provided… As awful as this scandal is, the fraud and abuse on display in Mississippi is not unique to TANF and not caused by its block grant structure. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that from 2015–2017 the annual average amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (or food stamps) “trafficked,” meaning retailers taking a fraudulent profit, was $1.2 billion. The GAO also found that improper payments in Medicaid, including payments for services not provided, totaled $36.7 billion in 2017. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice charged a nonprofit organization in Minnesota with a $250 million scheme that took federal pandemic-relief money earmarked for a child nutrition program and instead pocketed the funds.

In other words, corruption is an inherent part of government programs, whether the money is distributed as block grants or sent directly to recipients.

But not all government spending is created equal. Some ways of spending money do more damage than other ways of spending money.

Ms. Rachidi points out that welfare reform produced good results.  I don’t know if it saved money for taxpayers, but it led to progress as measured by variables such as labor force participation and child poverty.

None of this excuses what happened in Mississippi, but the context is important. Welfare reform, which created TANF, transformed a broken entitlement program—Aid to Families with Dependent Children—into a more effective system that gives states flexibility to address the underlying causes of poverty, including limited employment and unmarried parenthood. These reforms have significantly reduced dependence on cash welfare and increased employment among single mothers, which helped dramatically lower child poverty over the past two decades.

The obvious takeaway, as I pointed out back in 2015, is that we should we should be expanding on Bill Clinton’s success by replacing other federal entitlements with block grants.

The federal government maintains a Byzantine maze of redistribution programs, so there are lots of opportunities for progress. Medicaid is an obvious example, along with food stamps. Especially since both programs are riddled with fraud.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, Joe Biden wants to move in the wrong direction.

P.P.S. In my libertarian fantasy world, the federal government would have neither entitlements nor block grants. That also happens to the world envisioned by America’s Founders (and the reality Americans enjoyed up until the 1930s).

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I often cite the OECD’s data on “actual individual consumption” to show that the average American enjoys higher living standards than the average European.

In this clip from a recent presentation, I compare the United States and France.

I’m motivated to write on this topic because of a recent tweet from Arnaud Bertrand.

I don’t know who he is, but he shares some very depressing data about the well-being of ordinary people in France.

The above data, according to Monsieur Bertrand, is before taxes on income.

Which makes me curious, of course, so I went to the OECD’s data on “Taxing Wages.”

Here is the data from Table 3.1, showing the tax burden on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers in France and the United States.

As you can see, the tax burden is much higher in France for every type of household. It doesn’t matter whether the household is single or married, the level of income, or the amount of children.

Indeed, the tax burden in France in every case is above the OECD average and the tax burden in the US is below average.

And don’t forget that average Americans also have much higher incomes than their French counterparts.

The bottom line is that Americans earn more and keep more. Something the keep in mind the next time one of our leftist friends agitates to make America more like Europe.

P.S. From the perspective of French taxpayers, the only good news is that nobody seems to be treated as poorly as the Spanish government treats Senor Alvarez.

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In this clip from an interview with Chile’s Axel Kaiser, I discuss “Wagner’s Law” and the lessons to be learned from fiscal policy in Western Europe.

If you don’t want to watch the video, my discussion can be summarized in three sentences.

  • Yes, welfare states in Western Europe are comparatively rich by world standards.
  • But those  countries became rich when they had relatively small governments.
  • Adopting high taxes and big welfare states has since stunted their economic growth.

And here’s a fourth sentence that I should have mentioned.

  • They compensate for bad fiscal policy by having laissez-faire policies in other areas.

I expect that some people won’t accept my argument without some supporting evidence, so I’m going to share some charts.

We’ll start with this chart from Our World in Data. As you can see, nations in Western Europe has almost no welfare states prior to World War II. And it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that big welfare states began to exist.

In other words, all the economic growth and industrial development that occurred in the 1800s and early 1900s took place when the fiscal burden of government was very small.

And if you want to see more charts to confirm this data, click here, here, and here.

Next we have a chart showing how the burden of government spending in the United States and Western Europe used to be similar, but then began to diverge after value-added taxes were adopted in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Last but not least, let’s consider whether the expansion of the welfare state in Western Europe had negative economic consequences.

The answer is yes. This chart, prepared by Prof. Leszek Balcerowicz (former head of Poland’s central bank) shows that Western Europe was rapidly converging with the United States, but then began to lose ground after big welfare states were imposed (and also after improvements in American economic policy under Presidents Reagan and Clinton).

And if you want to see more charts to confirm this data, click here, here, here, and here.

P.S. Since I added a fourth sentence above, explaining that many European nation have good policies in other areas to compensate for bad fiscal policy, here’s a chart I prepared in 2018 showing how many European nations score very highly for economic freedom once fiscal policy is removed from the equation.

To see overall rankings of economic liberty, you can peruse the data from Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom.

The bottom line is that Western European nations (with notable exceptions such as Italy, France, and Greece) get good scores, but would be far stronger if they had better fiscal policy.

And that’s the lesson that developing nations should learn.

P.P.S. As part of the interview, Axel and I also talked about California’s grim economic outlook.

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What’s the most depressing chart in the world?

If you believe in limited government and you’re looking back in time, this example or this example are good candidates.

But if we’re looking into the future, this chart from a new study by the European Central Bank is very sobering.

And it’s a depressing chart because it doesn’t matter whether you believe in big government or small government. That’s because this chart shows a dramatic shift in population demographics.

Simply stated, Europe’s welfare states are in deep trouble because over time there will be fewer and fewer workers to pay taxes and more and more old people expecting benefits.

Here’s what the ECB experts, Katalin Bodnár and Carolin Nerlich, wrote about their findings.

The euro area, like many other advanced economies, has entered an era of drastic demographic change. …Declining birth rates and rising life expectancy are causing the number of pensioners to increase relative to workers. In the next one and a half decades, this trend will be amplified as the sizeable baby boom generation enters retirement and the cohort of workers shrinks. …The old-age dependency ratio is projected to reach almost 54% by 2070… If left unaddressed, population ageing will pose a burden on public finances in the euro area, given the relatively strong role of publicly financed pension and health care systems. Debt sustainability challenges might arise from mounting ageing-related public spending, which will be particularly a concern in high debt countries.

That last sentence in the above excerpt should win a prize for understatement of the year.

Many of Europe’s welfare states already are on the verge of crisis. And as demographics change over time (findings replicated in the European Commission’s Ageing Report), they will go from bad to worse.

Here’s a breakdown of how the “age dependency ratio” will change in various nations.

By the way, if you look at the right side of Chart 4, you’ll see Japan’s horrible numbers as well as a worrisome trend for the United States.

Most people focus on how demographic change will lead to more debt.

I think it’s more important to focus on the underlying problem of government spending.

This next chart combines both. The vertical axis shows the increase in age-related government spending while the horizontal axis shows debt levels.

The bottom line is that countries in the top-right quadrant are in deep trouble. Especially in the long run (though Italy could go belly-up very soon).

The ECB report does suggest ways to address this looming crisis.

To safeguard against the adverse economic and fiscal consequences of population ageing, there is a need to build-up fiscal buffers during good economic times, to improve the quality of public finance and to implement growth-enhancing structural reforms. …Further pension reforms are needed that encourage workers to postpone their retirement.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of these things to happen. Building up “fiscal buffers” means running surpluses today to offset deficits tomorrow. But European nations are running big deficits because of excessive spending today, so there will be no maneuvering room in the future.

P.S. Here’s some comedy (and more comedy) about Europe’s fiscal mess.

P.P.S. It is possible to reduce large debt burdens, so long as governments simply restrain spending.

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Earlier this year, I pointed out that President Biden should not be blamed for rising prices.

There has been inflation, of course, but the Federal Reserve deserves the blame. More specifically, America’s central bank responded to the coronavirus pandemic by dumping a lot of money into the economy beginning in early 2020.

Nearly a year before Biden took office.

The Federal Reserve is not the only central bank to make this mistake.

Here’s the balance sheet for the Eurosystem (the European Central Bank and the various national central banks that are in charge of the euro currency). As you can see, there’s also been a dramatic increase in liquidity on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Why should American readers care about what’s happening with the euro?

In part, this is simply a lesson about the downsides of bad monetary policy. For years, I’ve been explaining that politicians like easy-money policies because they create “sugar highs” for an economy.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that false booms almost always are followed by real busts.

But this is more than a lesson about monetary policy. What’s happened with the euro may have created the conditions for another European fiscal crisis (for background on Europe’s previous fiscal crisis, click here, here, and here).

In an article for Project Syndicate, Willem Buiter warns that the European Central Bank sacrificed sensible monetary policy by buying up the debt of profligate governments.

…major central banks have engaged in aggressive low-interest-rate and asset-purchase policies to support their governments’ expansionary fiscal policies, even though they knew such policies were likely to run counter to their price-stability mandates and were not necessary to preserve financial stability. The “fiscal capture” interpretation is particularly convincing for the ECB, which must deal with several sovereigns that are facing debt-sustainability issues. Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain are all fiscally fragile. And France, Belgium, and Cyprus could also face sovereign-funding problems when the next cyclical downturn hits.

Mr. Buiter shares some sobering data.

All told, the Eurosystem’s holdings of public-sector securities under the PEPP at the end of March 2022 amounted to more than €1.6 trillion ($1.7 trillion), or 13.4% of 2021 eurozone GDP, and cumulative net purchases of Greek sovereign debt under the PEPP were €38.5 billion (21.1% of Greece’s 2021 GDP). For Portugal, Italy, and Spain, the corresponding GDP shares of net PEPP purchases were 16.4%, 16%, and 15.7%, respectively. The Eurosystem’s Public Sector Purchase Program (PSPP) also made net purchases of investment-grade sovereign debt. From November 2019 until the end of March 2022, these totaled €503.6 billion, or 4.1% of eurozone GDP. In total, the Eurosystem bought more than 120% of net eurozone sovereign debt issuances in 2020 and 2021.

Other experts also fear Europe’s central bank has created more risk.

Two weeks ago, Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute expressed concern that Italy had become dependent on the ECB.

…the European Central Bank (ECB) is signaling that soon it will be turning off its monetary policy spigot to fight the inflation beast. Over the past two years, that spigot has flooded the European economy with around $4 trillion in liquidity through an unprecedented pace of government bond buying. The end to ECB money printing could come as a particular shock to the Italian economy, which has grown accustomed to having the ECB scoop up all of its government’s debt issuance as part of its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program. …the country’s economy has stalled, its budget deficit has ballooned, and its public debt has skyrocketed to 150 percent of GDP. …Italy has had the dubious distinction of being a country whose per capita income has actually declined over the past 20 years. …All of this is of considerable importance to the world economic outlook. In 2010, the Greek sovereign debt crisis shook world financial markets. Now that the global economy is already slowing, the last thing that it needs is a sovereign debt crisis in Italy, a country whose economy is some 10 times the size of Greece’s.

Mr. Lachman also warned about this in April.

Over the past two years, the ECB’s bond-buying programs have kept countries in the eurozone’s periphery, including most notably Italy, afloat. In particular, under its €1.85 trillion ($2 trillion) pandemic emergency purchase program, the ECB has bought most of these countries’ government-debt issuance. That has saved them from having to face the test of the markets.

And he said the same thing in March.

The ECB engaged in a large-scale bond-buying program over the past two years…, as did the U.S. Federal Reserve. The size of the ECB’s balance sheet increased by a staggering four trillion euros (equivalent to $4.4 billion), including €1.85 trillion under its Pandemic Emergency Purchasing Program. …The ECB’s massive bond buying activity has been successful in keeping countries in the eurozone’s periphery afloat despite the marked deterioration in their public finances in the wake of the pandemic.

Let’s conclude with several observations.

So if politicians won’t adopt good policies and their bad policies won’t work, what’s going to happen?

At some point, national governments will probably default.

That’s an unpleasant outcome, but at least it will stop the bleeding.

Unlike bailouts and easy money, which exacerbate the underlying problems.

P.S. For what it is worth, I do not think a common currency is necessarily a bad idea. That being said, I wonder if the euro can survive Europe’s awful politicians.

P.P.S. While I think Mr. Buiter’s article in Project Syndicate was very reasonable, I’ve had good reason to criticize some of his past analysis.

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When debating big issues such as the size and scope of government, I like to think that facts matter. Maybe I’m being naive, but people should look at evidence before deciding whether to make government bigger or smaller.

And with Biden proposing a big expansion in the size of the welfare state, this is why I regularly compare the economic performance of the United States and various European nations.

After all, if we’re going to make America more like Europe, shouldn’t we try to understand what that might mean for the well being of the citizenry?

With this in mind, I want to share this tweet (based on this data) from Stefan Schubert at the London School of Economics.

The obvious takeaway is that the average person in the United States enjoys much higher living standards (more than 50 percent higher) than the average person in the European Union.

Even more astounding, the United States even has a big 20-percent advantage of the wealthy tax haven of Luxembourg.

By the way, the above data may understate the gap if you make apples-to-apples comparisons.

Nima Sanandaji compared the economic output of Scandinavians who emigrated to the United States with Scandinavians who stayed home.

He found even bigger gaps, one example of which is the data about Swedes in this chart.

Let’s look at one more bit of data.

Another way of illustrating the gap is see how European nations no longer are converging with the United States (and may actually be diverging).

The only good news for Europeans (if we’re grading on a curve) is that there’s been a decline in both the relative and absolute levels of economic freedom in the United States during the 21st century.

If that continues, the U.S. may “catch up” to Europe at some point in the future. Joe Biden certainly is working for that outcome.

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Joe Biden’s economic policy has been a disaster.

  • He’s bad on the issues where Trump was bad (spending and trade).
  • He’s bad on the issues where Trump was good (most notably, taxes).
  • And he’s bad on the issues where Trump had a mixed record (regulation).

Based on his track record as a long-time Senator, none of this is a surprise. According to vote ratings from the Club for Growth and National Taxpayers Union, Biden was to the left of even Crazy Bernie.

Unfortunately, a bad president (anyone remember Nixon?) can do a lot more damage than a bad senator.

Today is Part I of a series of columns analyzing Biden’s failure.

We’ll start with his so-called Build Back Better plan. Joe Biden didn’t explicitly mention “BBB” is his State of the Union address, but he did promote almost all of the specific policies that are in that plan.

And he even made the preposterous argument that some of those policies would help bring inflation under control.

I’ve repeatedly explained why the president’s plan for a bigger welfare state is bad news, but this tweet from Americans for Prosperity’s Akash Chougule does a great job of debunking Biden’s argument in a very succinct fashion.

You may recognize the chart. As I pointed out last year, it shows that prices rise rapidly in areas where government subsidies distort the market.

In areas where the free market operates, by contrast, prices actually tend to decline.

I’ll close with the observation that Biden’s Build Back Better is a clunky amalgamation of new and expanded entitlements. His per-child handout is the most expensive, and it’s especially pernicious because it would undo the success of Bill Clinton (and Newt Gingrich’s) welfare reform.

But if there was a prize for the most economic damage per dollar spent, Biden’s scheme for government-dictated childcare would be the worst of the worst since he subsidizes demand while also restricting supply. If it gets approved, the chart may need a new vertical axis because Biden will screw up the market for childcare even more than the government has screwed up the markets for health care and higher education.

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When I compare the United States and Europe, it’s usually because I want to make the point that people on the other side of the Atlantic have lower living standards in large part because there is a more onerous fiscal burden of government.

Simply stated, America’s medium-sized welfare state doesn’t do as much damage as the large-sized welfare states in Europe.

But I also use US-vs.-Europe comparisons to make another point, namely that big welfare states mean big tax burdens for lower-income and middle-class households.

To be more specific, most of Europe’s redistribution spending is financed by high tax burdens on regular people.

Yes, European politicians impose onerous burdens on upper-income taxpayers, but there simply are not nearly enough rich people to finance big government.

So those politicians have responded by pillaging everyone else as well (onerous payroll taxes, harsh value-added taxes, high income tax rates on modest incomes, etc).

The United States takes a different approach. We also impose onerous burdens on upper-income taxpayers (as confirmed by IRS data), but we impose comparatively modest taxes on everyone else.

Indeed, the net result, as shown in the table, is that the United States actually has the most “progressive” tax system among OECD nations.

Today, let’s look at some research that makes similar points.

Three academics at the Paris School of Economics authored a study for the World Inequality Lab that uses a new database to measure redistribution and inequality.

Their main conclusion is that there are differences between the United States and Europe, but redistribution policies don’t have a big impact on inequality.

This article addresses…substantive and methodological issues by constructing distributional national accounts for twenty-six European countries from 1980 to 2017. To our knowledge, this is the first attempt at doing so. …our series are fully comparable with recently produced US distributional national accounts, allowing us to compare the dynamics of inequality and redistribution in the two regions in great detail. Two key findings emerge from the analysis of our new database. First, we show that, over the past four decades, inequality has increased in nearly all European countries as well as in Europe as a whole, both before and after taxes, but much less than in the United States. …Second, the main reason for Europe’s relative resistance to the rise of inequality has little to do with the direct impact of taxes and transfers. While Western and Northern European countries redistribute a larger fraction of output than the US (about 47% of national income is taxed and redistributed in Europe versus 35% in the US), the distribution of taxes and transfers does not explain the large gap between Europe and US posttax inequality levels. Quite the contrary: after accounting for all taxes and transfers, the US appears to redistribute a greater fraction of its national income to the poorest 50% than any European country.

What drives these results?

Simply stated, the most salient feature of European fiscal policy is that nations tax the middle class and have programs that benefit the middle class.

The United States, by contrast, focuses more on taxing the rich and giving benefits to the poor.

Look at what the study says about tax progressivity.

Figure Vb ranks European countries and the United States according to a simple measure of tax progressivity: the ratio of the total tax rate faced by the top 10% to that of the bottom 50%. The composition of bars correspond to the composition of taxes paid by the top 10%. The US stands out as the country with the highest level of tax progressivity: the top decile faces a tax rate that is more than 70% higher than that of the poorest half of the population. By this measure, the European country with the most progressive tax system is the United Kingdom, followed by Norway, the Czech Republic, and France. Many European countries have values close to 1 on this indicator, corresponding to relatively flat tax systems, in which top income groups face a tax rate approximately equal to that of the bottom 50%. …the US also stands out as one of the countries where the top 10% pay the largest share of their pretax income in the form of income and wealth taxes.

And here’s Figure V, which shows how the U.S. has (far and away) the most “progressive” tax system.

Again, I want to emphasize that this is not because the U.S. imposes higher taxes on the rich. The so-called progressivity of the American system is driven by the fact that there are low taxes on everyone else.

What about on the spending side of the fiscal ledger?

The study finds that the the United States has the most redistribution to lower-income people.

…the US tax-and-transfer system appears to be unequivocally more progressive. The bottom 50% in the US received a positive net transfer of 6% of national income in 2017, compared to about 4% in Western and Northern Europe and less than 3% in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the top 10% saw their average income decrease by 8% of national income in the US after taxes and transfers, compared to about 4% in Western and Northern Europe and 3% in Eastern Europe. …Figure VIIb represents the net transfer received by the bottom 50% in all European countries and the United States in 2017. Again, the US stands out as the country that redistributes the greatest fraction of national income to the bottom 50%.

Here’s the aforementioned Figure VII.

I’ll close by observing that there are multiple interpretations of this data. I suspect that authors want readers to conclude that there should be higher taxes and more redistribution. Both in Europe and the United States.

My big takeaway is that this research confirms why people with modest incomes in the United States have a better life than their counterparts in Europe.

Not only do they enjoy higher levels of income, but they also pay much lower tax burdens.

P.S. One other point to emphasize is that it’s wrong to fixate on inequality. In part, that’s because there’s nothing wrong with rich people getting richer (assuming they earn their money rather than getting special favors from politicians). But also because ethical people should be concerned about improving the lives of the less fortunate rather than tearing down the successful.

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As I warned a few days ago, Biden’s so-called Build Back Better plan is not dead.

There’s still a significant risk that this economy-sapping plan will get enacted, resulting in big tax increases and a larger burden of government spending.

Proponents of a bigger welfare state say the President’s plan should be approved so that the United States can be more like Europe.

This argument is baffling because it doesn’t make sense to copy countries where living standards are significantly lower.

In some cases dramatically lower.

Let’s explore this issue in greater detail.

In a column for Bloomberg, Allison Schrager analyzes America’s supply-chain problems and the impact on consumption patterns.

But what caught my eye were the numbers comparing the United States and Europe.

Americans can’t spend like they used to. Store shelves are emptying, and it can take months to find a car, refrigerator or sofa. If this continues, we may need to learn to do without — and, horrors, live more like the Europeans. That actually might not be a bad thing, because the U.S. economy could be healthier if it were less reliant on consumption. …We consume much more than we used to and more than other countries.  Consumption per capita grew about 65% from 1990 to 2015, compared with about 35% growth in Europe. …What would that mean for the U.S. economy? European levels of consumption coexist with lower levels of growth.

Here’s the chart that accompanied her article.

As you can see, consumption in the United States is far higher than it is in major European nations – about $15,000-per-year higher than the United Kingdom and about double the levels in Germany, Belgium, and France.

So when someone says we should expand the welfare state and be more like Europe, what they’re really saying is that we should copy nations that are far behind the United States.

Some of you may have noticed that Ms. Schrager is citing per-capita consumption data from the World Bank and you may be wondering whether other numbers tell a different story.

After all, if higher levels of consumption in America are simply the result of borrowing from overseas, that would be a negative rather than a positive.

So I went to the same website and downloaded the data for per-capita gross domestic product instead. I then created this chart (going all the way back to 1971). As you can see, it shows that Americans not only consume more, but we also produce more.

For those interested, I also included Japan and China, as well as the average for the entire world.

The bottom line is that it’s good to be part of western civilization. But it’s especially good to be in the United States.

Since we’re on the topic of comparative economics, David Harsanyi of National Review recently wrote about the gap between the United States and Europe.

More than anything, it is the ingrained American entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic that separates us from Europe and the rest of the world. …Europe, despite its wealth, its relatively stable institutions, its giant marketplace, and its intellectual firepower, is home to only one of the top 30 global Internet companies in the world (Spotify), while the United States is home to 18 of the top 30. …One of the most underrated traits we hold, for instance, is our relative comfort with risk — a behavior embedded in the American character. …Americans, self-selected risk-takers, created an individual and communal independence that engendered creativity. …Because of a preoccupation with “inequality” — one shared by the modern American Left — European rules and taxation for stock-option remuneration make it difficult for start-up employees to enjoy the benefits of innovation — and make it harder for new companies to attract talent. …But the deeper problem is that European culture values stability over success, security over invention…in Europe, hard work is less likely to guarantee results because policies that allow people to keep the fruits of their labor and compete matter far less.

In other words, there’s less economic dynamism because the reward for being productive is lower in Europe (which is simply another way of saying taxes are higher in Europe).

P.S. The main forcus of Ms. Schrager’s Bloomberg article was whether the U.S. economy is too dependent on consumption.

It feels like our voracious consumption is what fuels the economy. But that needn’t be the case. Long-term, sustainable growth doesn’t come from going deep into debt to buy stuff we don’t really need. It comes from technology and innovation, where we come up with new products and better ways of doing things. An economy based on consumption is not sustainable.

I sort of agree with her point.

Simply stated high levels of consumption don’t cause a strong economy. It’s the other way around. A strong economy enables high levels of consumption.

But this doesn’t mean consumption is bad, or that it would be good for America to be more like Europe.

Instead, the real lesson is that you want the types of policies (free markets and limited government) that will produce innovation and investment.

That results in higher levels of income, which then allows higher levels of consumption.

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First we got Biden’s $1.9 trillion so-called stimulus.

Then we got his $1 trillion-plus infrastructure boondoggle.

Now Congress may be on the verge of approving the President’s budget, which (if we use honest numbers) is a $5 trillion plan to expand the welfare state.

And…

So it’s hardly a surprise that recent changes will lead to a much-larger burden of government spending.

This is bad news for our economy, as measured by my recent study (with similar findings from a wide range of academics – as well as normally left-leaning bureaucracies such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD).

For purposes of today’s column, let’s put America’s fiscal decline in global context.

Here are some excerpts from a very depressing article in the Economist, starting with some discussion of how Biden’s spending binge is similar to the mistakes made by other nations.

President Joe Biden is building on what started as emergency pandemic-related policy, expanding the child-tax credit, creating a universal federally funded child-care system, subsidising paid family leave and expanding Obamacare. America’s government spending remains somewhat below the developed-world average. But this change is not just a matter of catching up; the target is moving. Government spending as a share of gdp in the oecd as a whole has consistently inched higher in the six decades since the club was formed in 1961.

There’s then some discussion about how a few nations – most notably Sweden and New Zealand – enjoyed period of genuine spending restraint, but accompanied by depressing observations about how fiscal responsibility is very rare.

Examples of genuine state retrenchment in developed countries are few and far between. Sweden managed it in the 1980s. In the early 1990s Ruth Richardson, then New Zealand’s finance minister, cut the size of the state drastically. …State spending is now six percentage points lower as a share of gdp than it was in 1990. But this is a rare achievement, and perhaps one doomed to pass. …This is a sorry state of affairs if you believe that low taxes and small government are the right, and possibly the only, conditions for reliable, enduring economic growth. …an argument made by Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian philosopher, Milton Friedman, an American economist, and others in the mid-20th century.

There’s also some historical analysis showing how the burden of government used to be relatively minor.

From 1274 to 1691 the English government raised less than 2% of gdp in tax. …In the 1870s the governments of rich countries were spending about 10% of gdp. In 1920 it was nearer 20%. It has been growing ever since (see chart 2).

Here’s the aforementioned chart 2, and there are a lot of depressing numbers, though notice how Switzerland does better than other nations.

I’ve previously shared a version of this data, calling it the “world’s most depressing chart” – all of which was made possible by the imposition of income taxes.

But there is some good news. The ever-rising fiscal burden of government has been somewhat offset by reductions in other bad policies.

Governments have not grown more powerful by all measures. Bureaucrats no longer, as a rule, set wages or prices, nor impose strict currency controls, as many did in the 1960s or 1970s. In recent decades the public sector has raised hundreds of billions of dollars from privatisations of state assets such as mines and telecoms networks. If you find it faintly amusing to hear that, from 1948 to 1984, the British state ran its own chain of hotels, that is because the “neoliberal” outlook on the proper place of government has triumphed.

Last but not least, there’s some discussion of “public choice,” which explains why politicians and bureaucrats have incentives to expand the size and scope of government.

Governments and bureaucrats are at least partly self-interested: “public-choice theory” says that unrestrained bureaucracies will defend their turf and seek to expand it. …Politicians have their own incentives to expand the state. It is generally more rewarding for a politician to introduce a new programme than it is to close an old one down; costs are spread across all taxpayers while benefits tend to be concentrated, thus eliciting gratitude from interest groups

I’ll close by reiterating my warning that ever-rising spending burdens not only lead to less growth, but they also will lead to Greek-style fiscal crises.

Europe will get hit first, but it’s just a matter of time before the United States suffers a similar fate.

P.S. There is a simple solution to avoid such crises, and a specific policy to achieve that solution. But don’t hold your breath waiting for politicians to tie their own hands.

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I regularly cite data about Europe’s sub-par economic outcomes in hopes of driving home the point that the United States should not copy that continent’s approach of onerous fiscal burdens.

Which is now a very relevant topic with Biden pushing for a big expansion of the welfare state.

This is not a good idea. Americans are richer than their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. Even more remarkably, lower-income people in the United States often have living standards equal to – or even greater than – middle-income Europeans.

Another way of making this point is to compare economic outcomes in American states compared to European countries.

I first did that back in 2015, citing data to show that all be the very-richest European nations would be considered poor if they were part of the United States.

I want to augment that comparison today. I’m motivated by a National Review column by Charles Cooke. As a former European, he realizes it would be a mistake for the United States to copy European policies.

Schrager writes, “Americans can’t spend like they used to. Store shelves are emptying, and it can take months to find a car, refrigerator or sofa. If this continues, we may need to learn to do without — and, horrors, live more like the Europeans. That actually might not be a bad thing.” Counterpoint: Yes, it would. …having spent a great deal of time in both places, I can assure you that it is considerably easier to live in America than it is to live in Europe, and that one of the main reasons for that — beyond Americans’ being so stonkingly rich — is that Americans are far, far more demanding of their marketplaces. …We do not, under any circumstances, need to “learn to do without.”

I want to focus on the “stonkingly rich” part of the above excerpt.

Cooke links to a 2014 column in the Washington Post by Hunter Schwarz. Here are the key passages.

If Britain were to join the United States, it would be the second-poorest state, behind Alabama and ahead of Mississippi. The ranking, determined by Fraser Nelson, an editor of The Spectator magazine, was made by dividing the gross domestic product of each state by its population, and it  took into account purchasing power parity for cost of living. Several other European countries were also included… Norway was the top European country on the list, between Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Here’s the Nelson data, which shows that only oil-rich Norway and pro-market Switzerland look good.

Some readers may be questioning the use of numbers from 2014 and 2015.

That’s a reasonable suspicion since perhaps European countries have closed the gap over the past few years.

But that’s not the case. The United States has grown faster in recent years, so updated state/country numbers would make Europe look even worse.

P.S. A Swedish think tank, Timbro, produced similar calculations back in 2004.

Here are those comparisons, showing again that European countries would be viewed as poor if they were states.

P.P.S. After a period of “convergence” after World War II, European countries have actually been falling further behind the United States in recent decades. Needless to say, it’s not good to be part of the “anti-convergence club.”

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Biden’s budget plan is based on fraudulent numbers, but it is also based on the fraudulent idea that a big, European-style welfare state can be financed without fleecing lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

I’ve repeatedly pointed out that this is not true, but it’s time to turn this fiscal fact into a Theorem of Government.

Some of my friends on the left don’t agree with the first sentence of this Theorem. In some cases, I think they sincerely believe that big government can be entirely financed by going after upper-income taxpayers.

This is why I added the second sentence. After all, surely some of Europe’s welfare states would have figured out how to shield poor and middle-class people from high tax burdens if that was possible.

Yet that’s not the case. As illustrated by this unfortunate Spaniard, ordinary people in Europe get fleeced by their governments.

The good news (sort of) is that there are some honest folks on the left who openly admit a big welfare state means big taxes on ordinary people.

I even include them on my page of “honest leftists.”

And now we have a new member of that club. Congressman Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania recently admitted that his party’s agenda will require taxes on those of us with modest incomes.

Here are some excerpts from a report by Emily Brooks.

Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb acknowledged that enacting all of the Democrats’ sweeping policy visions would require Democrats to raise taxes on the middle class rather than relying on tax increases on the rich. “If we want to propose a lot of new spending and adventurous new government programs in our party, we have to have the confidence to ask … the middle class and people like that to contribute to it. And I think that’s … what we’re missing right now,” Lamb, a Democrat representing a swing district northwest of Pittsburgh, said last week. …”Some of the focus on the billionaires and the ultra-wealthy that people are putting in the news right now — it’s fine, it’s valid, it’s not enough to fund everything we want to do,” Lamb said.

Needless to say, I disagree with Cong. Lamb’s policy agenda. If we adopt European-style fiscal policy, it will mean anemic, European-style economic malaise.

And that will translate into lower living standards for the masses.

But at least he’s being honest about what he wants.

P.S. To elaborate, a small government can be financed by a few rich people. That’s basically the story of Hong Kong. A medium-sized government can be financed in large part by the rich. That’s sort of the story of the United States (though ordinary people pay of a lot of payroll taxes). But there’s no way to finance a Biden-style agenda without going after ordinary taxpayers.

P.P.S. Here are my other Theorems of Government.

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Back in 2017, I shared my Second Theorem of Government to warn why it is so important to resist new government giveaway programs.

And I used Obamacare as a costly example.

Simply stated, it’s much easier to block new handouts than it is to take away goodies once people have been conditioned to think they can and should rely on government.

In some sense, this is not just about economics. It’s also about preserving societal capital.

All of which helps to explain why it is so important to resist some of Biden’s proposed giveaways, such as parental leave and per-child handouts.

And if you want some extra evidence, look at places where people have become accustomed to living off others.

In her column for the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes about the basket case of Argentina.

Socialist ideologues know that the welfare state is addictive. New entitlements create dependencies that, once born, demand to be fed and to grow no matter the party in power. Argentina proves the rule. The Argentine electorate may be about to throw out the hard-left Peronists… The bad news is that even if peronismo loses its unchecked power in Argentina’s National Congress, it’s probably too late to avoid another fiscal and monetary crisis. …Both legislative chambers are likely to remain heavily populated by advocates of European socialism.

She shares some history about Argentina’s descent from prosperity to dependency, and points out how the entitlement mindset makes much-needed reforms very difficult.

Even when supposedly right-of-center governments win elections.

One hundred years ago Argentina was one of the world’s most prosperous nations. But as the roaring ’20s wound down, continental fascism gained cachet. …Gen. Juan Perón, who ruled from 1946 through 1955 and again briefly in 1973-74, was especially fond of Benito Mussolini’s Italy. …statism sticks once it’s in place. …fiscal profligacy endured and support for rigid labor laws remained intransigent. …even with Argentine inflation above 50%, widespread price controls and the economy sputtering for a decade, a viable alternative to populism hasn’t emerged.

For more information about the economic tragedy of Argentina, you can click here, here, and here.

To be frank, however, I’m not overly concerned about that country. Like Greece, I view it as a lost cause.

What worries me is that the United States may wind up on a slippery slope if more entitlements are added to our already-creaky and burdensome welfare state.

P.S. Argentina probably wouldn’t be such a basket case if the IMF didn’t provide endless bailouts.

P.P.S. It wasn’t too long ago that Biden seemed to understand the importance of societal capital.

 

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During his 2012 reelection campaign, Barack Obama created a fictional character named Julia and showed how she could mooch off taxpayers from cradle to grave.

Given Biden’s reputation as a plagiarizer, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the White House has reincarnated Julia as part of a push to trap more people in government dependency.

Here is the story of Linda and Leo.

The shocking part of the story, right at the start, is that Linda actually has a job in the private sector.

But Linda soon figures out that she can use the coercive power of government to take money from her neighbors.

She starts with Biden’s per-child handout.

She then puts her son into government-subsidized child care (with no discussion, of course, of how third-party payer causes prices to skyrocket).

I can only imagine the nursery rhymes he’ll hear in that setting.

She then enrolls him in a “free” pre-K program, presumably unaware that such programs have no evidence of success (but at least Biden will be happy that this program creates more unionized teachers to fight against quality education).

Next, her son enters taxpayer-funded community college (another third-party payer problem).

After college, he gets a job, which is nominally in the private sector, but which largely exists because of government distortions (all jobs are not created equal).

Last but not least, Linda gets to rely on taxpayers in her old age, thanks to other programs that are designed to produce additional overpaid government employees.

Let’s close this depressing celebration of dependency by shifting to humor.

Here’s a tweet about Biden’s people plagiarizing Obama’s people.

While I appreciate the satire, I’m quite worried about the long-run impact of Biden’s agenda (i.e., becoming Greece).

P.S. Regarding Obama’s Julia, here’s a great Michael Ramirez cartoon and here’s some clever Iowahawk satire.

P.P.S. And here’s my two-cartoon set on what happens as more and more people are lured into the wagon of government dependency.

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I don’t know whether to be amused or frustrated, but I can’t help but notice that folks on the left frequently argue that the United States needs to make government bigger in order to “catch up” or “shrink the gap” with Europe.

President Biden even has said that America is “falling behind” because the fiscal burden of government is lower than it is in other nations.

My response is always to point out that there is a gap between the United States and other developed nations, but that gap always shows that people in America are more prosperous, with far higher levels of consumption.

Heck, lower-income people in the United States often are better off than middle-class people in Europe.

And what’s especially remarkable is that the gap is growing rather than shrinking, even though convergence theory tells us Europe should be growing faster.

So why should we want to copy the policies of nations that have lower living standards?

Yet none of this information was included in a New York Times article about paid parental leave by Claire Cain Miller. Instead, the focus of the article is how the United States “lags” behind other nations.

Congress is now considering four weeks of paid family and medical leave… If the plan becomes law, the United States will no longer be one of six countries in the world — and the only rich country — without any form of national paid leave. But it would still be an outlier. Of the 185 countries that offer paid leave for new mothers, only one, Eswatini (once called Swaziland), offers fewer than four weeks. …Globally, the average paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, and the average paid paternity leave is 16 weeks… Besides the United States, the only other countries with no paid maternity leave are the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Suriname and Tonga.

The bottom line is that our government does not provide some of the goodies provided by politicians in other nations, but we have a much stronger economy that produces much higher living standards.

And there’s lots of evidence that there’s more prosperity in the United States precisely because the welfare state is smaller and the tax burden is not as onerous.

I’ll close by acknowledging that there is a very legitimate Arther Okun-style argument to accept weaker growth in exchange for more handouts from government.

In the case of parental leave, I don’t find that argument persuasive (for reasons explained here, here, here, here, and here), but reasonable people can disagree.

What’s not reasonable, however, is whining that the United States “lags” other nations without acknowledging Okun’s tradeoff.

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Some of my left-leaning friends (as well as some non-friends) think Nordic nations such as Sweden are shining examples of successful socialism.

They’re wrong.

Not only are they wrong, but those nations actually are case studies of how big welfare states cause damage to national prosperity (as well as case studies of how unwinding big government is a way to regain competitiveness).

Countries such as Sweden also teach a very important lesson about taxation.

John Gustavsson, a doctoral student in economics from Sweden, explains for the Daily Dispatch what’s happening in his country.

He starts out by noting that Sweden doesn’t disproportionately screw the rich.

If Europe can have universal health care, pre-K, and all the other welfare state goodies, why can’t America? We could if we just taxed the millionaires and billionaires, the argument goes. Speaking as a Swedish citizen, I can tell you it is not quite that simple. …Sweden doesn’t really tax the millionaires and billionaires—it taxes the poor. In Sweden, it is possible to avoid virtually all capital gains taxes through an investment savings account, which obviously mostly benefits the rich. What about wealth taxes? The Nordic countries have long since moved past them: Denmark abolished its wealth tax in 1997, Finland in 2005, and Sweden In 2007. It’s not about ideological opposition to taxing the rich.  It’s that the wealth tax was completely counterproductive and caused capital to flee these countries.

By the way, it’s also worth noting that Sweden’s corporate tax rate is just 20.6 percent, which is lower than America’s rate (even if the Trump tax reform somehow survives the Biden era).

So how, then, does the Swedish collect a lot of revenue?

Simple. Mr. Gustavsson points out that ordinary people get pillaged, particularly those with low levels of income.

…the big difference between the U.S. and Sweden, taxation-wise, is how the poor are taxed. Americans who make less than $12,000 per year pay no federal income taxes.  Many who make more than that still end up paying a net zero in taxes once deductions are accounted for. In Sweden, the equivalent is about $2,300. On any money you make above that threshold, you pay a tax rate of about 30 percent, plus payroll taxes. What about deductions? In the US, the average tax refund last year was $2,707. In Sweden, it was $821. On top of this, Sweden has a national sales tax of 25 percent on almost everything you buy. As the poor spend a greater share of their income, this tax disproportionally hurts them. The kind of taxes that the poor are forced to pay in the Nordic countries would be completely unacceptable to the majority of the American public. …Welfare states simply cannot be built on the backs of only the rich. We learned that the hard way, and you will too.

Amen.

I’ve made this same point, over and over again.

And some honest leftists (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) admit that their agenda requires big tax hikes on lower-income and middle class people.

Simply stated, there are not enough rich people to finance big government.

So if we copy Sweden, be prepared to empty your wallets and purses.

P.S. Sweden is a good case study for the benefits of Social Security privatization and the Laffer Curve.

P.P.S. There’s fascinating research contemplating whether migration to America changed Sweden’s ideological orientation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some key excerpts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Paul Krugman admits that is preposterously false.

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

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

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

 

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

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

Massive failure may be an understatement.

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

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

How much of a disaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But affordable is not the same as sensible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Chuck Asay cartoon makes the same point.

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

The same theme as this excellent cartoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The authors cite a real-world example.

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

Here’s a table showing those results.

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

And the same problem exists in other nations as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are not happy.

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

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

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

So how do Johnson’s allies respond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

I’ll close with two final points.

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

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

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

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

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

This video hopefully ties together all that analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

This is hardly a recent revelation.

I first wrote about this topic back in 2009.

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I came up with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the relevant excerpt.

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

You’ll notice an astounding omission.

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

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

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

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

The JEC report, by contrast, is utter garbage.

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

P.S. Arthur Okun would be very disappointed.

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